"Evening, Alden. Mara." Alex said as the brisk wind bit at his ears. "I'm sorry to drop in like this, Alden, but I needed to speak with you and I wanted to be able to do it privately. Is this a bad time?"
"Ah... no. Of course not." Alden answered. He started to ask how he had found the house, but realized that the Bryces were listed in the phone book. "Please, make yourself at home. Would you like something to drink?"
Alex walked in and took off his coat, hanging it on a nearby rack. Alden was surprised to see him dressed so casually...usually he was dressed more formally when he saw him in civilian clothes.
Seeing Alex so distracted, Alden waited for the man to get settled. Once Alex found a comfortable spot, Alden asked "What can I do for you?"
Alex looked out a window as the snow fell on the outside. "I need to take a leave of absence from the Protectors. Something's come up that I can't ignore any longer."
With a twing of fear, Alden ventured, "Is this something Alex needs to address, or Sting?"
With a wry smile, Alex responded "Both. What I'm about to tell you only my daughter knows. I still don't want this to become public knowlege, but as team leader you have a right to know...and as a friend it's something I should have shared awhile ago."
What followed was a fairly long explanation of a combination of history and current events. Alex told both Alden and Mara about the Peacekeepers, a team that operated under the sanction of the United Nations. They were very successful publicly, but privately the combination of differing political views and a lack of time spent together outside of business often left the team's nerves raw. He then spoke of two events that basically killed the Peacekeepers for good.
One was a case involving a creature called Ripper, who killed his victims by absorbing their life energy, which he called their "soul". This monster had murdered his wife, and he called upon the Peacekeepers to help him bring the monster down. They did defeat the monster, but not before he had absorbed the life energy...and apparently the powers...of the Peacekeeper known as Tsunami. He transformed into water...as Tsunami was able to do..and then disappeared, never to be seen again.
The second was the war against the First World that destroyed the Peacekeepers base as well as killed three of the Peacekeepers and three of the First World...one of which, White Pride, had died at Alex's hands in a fit of frustration and rage. After that, he disappeared for awhile and lived a quiet life with his daughter.
"Hold on a moment, there was never a Peacekeeper called Sting," said Alden.
"No, my friend, there wasn't. Sting was never a Peacekeeper," Alex said. "But I was. At that time, I was known as Aftershock."
Mara and Alden looked at one another in silence for a long moment. "Aftershock ... isn't he dead?"
Alex nodded. "When it was reported that my body was never found and assumed dead, I let it stay that way...partly because I was in deep remorse and guilt over what had happened to my teammates, my friends...and partly to protect Lorelei, who was barely a teenager at the time. When my powers...changed...and I gained the power of shrinking...and after several years of deep soul searching...I became Sting, because deep down I knew I could make a difference."
Alex took a deep breath before continuing. "I am not proud of the fact that I killed someone. Legally, there was no crime, Peacekeepers had international sanction to use any force necessary in the line of duty, and that battle was kill or be killed...the World wasn't taking prisoners that day. However, because of the danger to both the world and to Lorelei, I was afraid to say anything...until recent events."
Alex unfolded the newspaper and pointed to an article. "Big Ben was one of the three known survivors of the Peacekeepers. He was murdered. A second known survivor, Jade Tiger, died in an avalanche in the Himalayas last week. This cannot be coincidence. Someone, or something, is hunting down and killing the Peacekeepers. And there's only two left. Me...who the world assumes is dead...and Baba Yaga, the magic using traitorous witch who gave the First World open access to our stronghold and then laughed among the carnage. An avalanche "spontaneously" happening is within her realm of power, to my knowledge, and if it *is* her doing this, I have to find a way to stop her."
"Sting, this is what the Protectors are for, it's why you belong to a team."
"I know," Alex said, "and all of you are very dear friends. Which is exactly why I cannot ask the Protectors to help on this. The last time I took my teammates on a personal mission, someone died. I stood and watched good people, good heroes, get slaughtered by maniacs. I can't subject the Protectors to that. Port Alexander needs the Protectors too much."
"I've known you long enough to know when to argue with you, Alex. This is not one of those times because your mind is set." Alden gave the man a grave smile. "You know where we are if you need our assistance. Good luck and be safe."
"Always, my friend." Alex said. "Please watch over Lorelei while I'm gone. Ka-Sador's leaving has affected her far more than I thought it would and far more than she's letting on."
The Mystic was unable to provide much help or information. "I know of Baba Yaga only by reputation. No one that I know of has heard aught of her since she departed the Peacekeepers. Her abilities, though formidable, are not overwhelming. It is for this reason that I, personally, feel that although she claimed to be Baba Yaga, she rather wished to become Baba Yaga.
"I regret that I do not have anything suitable with which to arm you for a foray against the witch. There are a few artifacts here which might have power, but they also require both training and, for lack of a better term, talent. I will say, though, that should you find yourself facing Baba Yaga and have sufficient forewarning, contact me. If I cannot come myself, I can perhaps send Ragnar. He has the talent, and is receiving the training."
But the jobs were still slow to come. They would have liked to do more news ads...maybe even an infomercial...but the money wasn't quite there yet to...
"Interesting place for a business office"
MidKnight spun around, arms extended for a lightburst, when he saw something he never thought he would see. The man in front of him he recognized from the various newspapers and newscasts that covered his exploits. The big question was...
"Judging by your dark attire, you must be the Midnight of the Midnight Star. My name is..."
"I know who you are." MidKnight said. "You're Sting. You're one of the Protectors. You really shouldn't sneak up on someone like that." "Sorry," Sting said, "but at least I got to take a look at your battle readiness. You were primed in perfect position for offense without pulling the trigger before you knew who it was. Impressive."
"Nice of you to say," MidKnight retorted, "but unless you're here to give a free testimonial, I doubt that's gonna get me very far. So what brings a top gun like you to the 'Parts?"
"Well, from what I understand, you and your partner are paranormals for hire. I'm here to hire you."
MidKnight looked at him with peering eyes. "Uh huh. A member in good standing of one of the hottest super teams on the planet needs hired guns. I thought that's why super-types like you were in super teams...to help each other."
"This is a personal mission." Sting said. "Lets just say I'm more comfortable in this instance working with someone other than my friends and teammates."
"Is the job dangerous?" MidKnight asked. "What am I saying, of course it is. That's why you're not asking your buddies. I guess that speaks volumes of what you think of us, huh?"
Sting was taken aback by the brusqueness of MidKnight, but he did appreciate his candor. "You're right...what we're doing is something I'd rather not ask my friends to risk their lives for. However, it's not like you won't be compensated for your work. WELL...compensated."
MidKnight looked at the hero. Despite his general wariness about people who really didn't know what it was like at his level...or at least it appeared so...he also knew that this could be a gig that could jump start the business.
"I make no decisions without my partner. Lemme get him down here and we'll talk."
One phone call later, Starlad was sitting at the desk in their office while MidKnight stood behind him. Sting sat on the other side of the desk. While not giving them the whole details on the story, he spoke of the deaths of the two Peacekeepers and the circumstances behind it. His goal was to discover who was behind the murders and bring them to justice.
"I'm here," Sting said, "because while I don't want my friends involved, I also know I can't do this alone. I've heard good things about your work, and I also know that you'll give me your best, especially since it will be a paid job."
MidKnight nodded, then looked at his partner. He knew that of the two of them, he had the better business acumen when discussing things with potential clients.
Star Lad exhaled audibly. This was big, really big and really soon, he thought to himself. Midnight Star had been scraping by, he and MidKnight had been able to gel over the last few weeks and typically their superior strength had prevailed whenever things got hot. But what Sting was proposing was much more than a couple of muscleheads terrorizing a grocery store, or a jealous lover threatening to kill a pet cat.
"What you propose," he said to Sting, "is right up our alley," he lied. "One question," Star Lad looked to MidKnight, "we're licensed to operate here in Port Alexander and my partner here carries some police jurisdiction, however what you're talking about could put us on the wrong side of local authorities. We don't have the clout of the Protectors to pull our fat out of the fire if things go wrong."
"Well, being a Protector, I do." Sting said. "And at least for the start of the mission we'll have assistance from associates of mine in Europe who have jurisdiction in that area. From there, however, I really can't make any promises. Of course, I'll do what I can in a tight spot, but I'm not exactly working under jurisdiction either.
"Not to sound insensitive, but I assume you've been made aware of our fee?" Star Lad awkwardly asked the proven crimefighter trying to sound professional and not pompous. How else was he to broach the subject? he knew that he was just as guilty as MidKnight in taking pro bono cases which rapidly turned into freebie services. He hoped he didn't come across as sounding greedy.
"Actually, I was only aware that you had one, not of the particulars. I trust, however, that my intentioned payment will be more than sufficient."
He opened the locked bankers bag that he had carried with him. Upon opening it, he pulled out 10 $1000 packs of $20 bills. "This is the down payment for your services. If you complete and survive the mission, I'll add $40,000 to it, plus whatever expenses you occur. The only thing I ask is that you accept payment in cash. While I promise you that the funds source isn't anything underhanded, I'm sure you can appreciate my right to privacy."
Sting paused for a moment before speaking again. "I don't mind telling you that this assignment is a fairly dangerous one. This isn't guarding a bank shipment, this is tracking down a metahuman murderer that has already killed two famous, powerful heroes. I also don't mind paying you what the assignment is worth."
"So, fifty thousand plus expenses. Do we have a deal?"
Star Lad stared at the money sitting on the desk and was momentarily speechless. Soon he regained his composure, cursing himself for looking like a business novice. He looked to MidKnight, "Uh, Mr. Sting, could we have a moment to discuss this in private?"
As soon as Sting was out of earshot, "Can you believe this?" exclaimed Star Lad in a low voice.
"Not exactly." MidKnight whispered. "If he's offering 50 G's, there's no way this is completely on the up and up. Especially since he's in a big ol' hotshot superhero group that would probably help him for free."
"I feel the same way," Star Lad looked toward the door, "this is a freakin' death mission." He reached out and touched a stack of bills, "If it wasn't Sting, I'd tell him to look for a sucker some place else. You think he's dirty?" Star Lad could see the look on MidKnight's face, there was another lecture about conspiracy theory coming, it was an unfortunate by-product of working at the PA Scryer.
MidKnight smiled. "I think we can both be good on this one. I don't want to play games with this guy. Remember, despite the better press and the apparently large bankroll, he's one of us."
With that, MidKnight showed Sting back into the room. Sting stood looking at both men, awaiting the answer.
"Ahem," Star Lad cleared his throat, "MidKnight and myself have discussed your proposition. After careful consideration, we believe we can offer our services." Star Lad looked over to his partner and continued, "as is customary with all Midnight Star Investigations cases, we guarantee results or your money back." The standard deal sealer sounded kind of hokey, considering if this job failed there was little chance any of them would return alive, but business was business. Star Lad caught MidKnight rolling his eyes at that line, but offered his hand nevertheless.
As Sting reached for it, Star Lad added quickly. "There is one more thing."
"Can we get a photograph?"
Sting had to stifle a chuckle at that. "When it's all said and done, provided you're everything I hope you are, as heroes and as people, consider it done. I think you can understand where I'm coming from on that."
Sting took his hand, shook it, and then handed over to Star Lad two E-tickets for a round trip coach flight to London, along with a piece of paper outlining the name, location and picture of a warehouse on the outskirts of the city. "We'll meet there in two days, at roughly 8 PM London time. We'll go over more details then. I have a couple of things to do before I meet up with you guys. Remember, you need to keep a running total with receipts of your expenses while on the case. No five star restaurants or palatial hotels, either...I'm not made of money, you know."
"Yes sir, uh, Sting." Again, Star Lad felt like an idiot. It wasn't too late for Sting to hire replacements if he felt he was getting a couple of rookies, he hoped he hadn't blown it with that 'sir' line.
Star Lad turned to MidKnight as Sting departed. "Looks like I'll be calling in sick, think Jenn will buy another top secret story?" He hated lying, but double lying was becoming like second nature to him. Hello boss, I'm feeling under the weather today, can you give my assignment to someone else? Hello Jenn, I know we're supposed to go out tonight but my boss put me on a hot story and I'll have to reschedule? Yeah, it would be comical if it didn't feel like he was walking a tightrope. And MidKnight was never any help when it came to encouraging him.
"Why call in sick?" MidKnight said. "Don't they have you covering our exploits anyways? Tell him the truth...that it's a major assignment but we can't talk about it or break any news until it's done...part of the contract."
"I suppose," Star Lad contemplated. "I try not to make too many promises to my editor, it keeps him honest. You never know who else is listening in."
After tea had been poured and the Squire-Butler had discreetly withdrawn, Dux waited to hear why Sting had requested a meeting.
Sting sat down, raised his mask to just under his nose in order to take a sip of tea before speaking. "Earl Grey." Sting said. "My favorite. Good choice. I'm here to investigate the murder of Big Ben and, by extension, Jade Tiger."
Sting then explained the situation involved, including his own story about his days as Aftershock and the reasons behind the identity change. Sting started to feel awkward about several people now knowing a secret he kept successfully for years, but the Table had proven themselves to be strong, trustworthy allies, Brittanicus in particular, and Sting knew they needed to know the reasons behind his visit in order to fully understand. Besides, he knew that it might be necessary to "out" himself as the former Aftershock in order to draw Yaga...or whoever was behind this...out of the woodwork. He ended his story with his reasons behind not involving the other Protectors in this.
"I do have allies not affiliated with the Protectors that will be assisting me in the investigation, they will be in London in less than 48 hours. My hope is to be able to start with whatever knowledge you've accumulated about Big Ben's death, maybe look over the site for anything authorities may have missed, and go from there."
"Also, although I am grateful for whatever help you can give me, I am uncomfortable asking the Table to be physically involved in this case for reasons similar to my not involving the full membership of the Protectors. However, I know GenX was close to Big Ben, so if you would have no objections to allowing him to investigate with my team, I would certainly have no objections to him accompanying us. Believe me, I know all too well how it feels to have a case become personal."
When Sting concluded, Sir David sat in silence for a few long moments. "That's quite a bit of information. Of course, we'll help where we can, but we don't have a lot to give you.
"Big Ben was semi-retired, you know. He wasn't a member of the Round Table, but he was always welcome here, and gave a hand training the younger members. He was a good man.
"Generation X is in our infirmary here, and you can speak with him whenever you like. I don't think he'll be able to help though, he's still pretty beat up.
"Ben's apartment is sealed as a crime scene, but I think I can get you in. We've been over it, but we have found little. The weapon, of course, but not much else. I don't mind telling you how frustrating it's been. I'll get the Squires onto the Baba Yaga connection and see what they can turn up. If there's any other avenue of investigation that you'd like us to follow let me know."
Sting smiled at his (literally!) old friend. "There could be something. PC had attempted to find out more about the Jade Tiger killing in the Himalayas, but was stonewalled by the Chinese goverment. Her contacts, however, uncovered a little bit, just enough to make me believe she was actively targeted as well. Maybe your squires can try to investigate the Jade Tiger connection to find something she may have been missed. Also, anyone who may have had a direct connection to the Peacekeepers at that time may be a target as well."
David nodded, "I'll see what can be done."
"Thank you." Sting said.
"In the meantime," Sting continued, "if it's not too late I'd like to chat briefly with GenX, if I could. And whatever credentials you can give me to help me operate over here would be helpful. I don't have the jurisdictional leeway here that I have in America, but you and yours do."
"That could be tricky. You aren't British nationals, but we can come up with something, I'm sure."
As they got up to leave, Sting suddenly stopped, realizing something. "Sir David, the possibility may exist that my team may have to leave the country quickly if a lead takes us away from here. What is the possibility of securing transport through the Round Table? Maybe a squire could handle that as well? I know I'm asking a lot, but we may not have much time to find the murderers...as far as they know, all of the Peacekeepers are now dead."
"Certainly, we can arrange that." He paused, "Ah, you might have return under your own power if you want to legally exit the country, though. Unless you want to let us process your passports. Always assuming that you entered the country legally."
"Legally, yes. As Sting, no." Sting had said. "I'll remember that option if need be...depends on where we end up needing to go, of course."
Brittanicus and Sting went to the infirmary, where X was laying listening to a CD player and pretty much tuned out of the world. When he saw the heroes, he managed somewhat of a smile as he pulled the headphones down.
"Billy Idol?" Sting said bemusedly. "You're showing your age, mate."
"Still got some energy to it," he indicated a stack of other CDs, "Gotta keep the mix up. S'all about the mix. Sting, right? A bit off your turf, aincha mate?"
"Here for good reason, though. I'm here with some associates investigating the Peacekeeper murders. I know you already talked to PC, but I wanted to go over with you as to what happened the day Ben was murdered. Try to remember every detail you can."
"Not a lot to add, mate. We'd had a bit of a punch up here, practice like, you know? Then back to his place for a pint. I had my back to the wall on the couch, when damned if the wall didn't fall on me 'ead. Ben's got ... had ... a ground floor flat, this bloke came right through the wall. Couldn't see much about 'im, really. Had on a kind of torn up bluey-red suit. I was a little woozy from the wall falling on me. This bloke shouted, "revenge," it sounded like. Ben looked like he'd seen a ghost. I jumped at the guy and he hit me with this spear-thing. Knocked me for a loop. I was in and out a bit, and saw him and Ben going at it. He kept shouting gibberish at Ben, 'vu maavvy ab and donny,' or some such rot. Then I blacked out. When I woke up, Ben was nailed to the wall with that damn spear. Bastard stuck him like a pig."
Sting thought for a moment. "Vu maavvy ab and donny," he thought to himself. He tried to roll it in his mind, trying to link the phoenetic sounds to some known language. If it didn't come to him, maybe if we ran it through the computer something could come up.
Sting had heard a lot of languages during his stint with the Peacekeepers, this sounded vaguely familiar. "Vu maavvy ab and donny," he said out loud.
"Sounds vaguely French, doesn't it?" said Sir David.
"Revenge?" Sting said aloud. Then it hit him. "The First World." he said.
"The First World? Aren't they all dead or incarcerated?"
"They are." Sting said. "But their associates...or even their progeny...might be behind this."
"Or..." Sting thought...French...blue and red tatters...the spear...
"Legionnaire." Sting looked around for a computer console, something that could call up databases.
"What are you looking for?" asked David. Sting told him. "This way is the computer center."
Sting turned to Generation X. "GenX, are you up to a brief walk? I need for you to make a visual ID for me."
A few moments later, Sting was standing over a Squire at a console. "What are we looking for?" she asked.
"Two things." Sting replied. "First, I need you to access a photograph of the Peacekeeper known as Legionnaire. For photo dossiers and other communications within the UN, we were required to do a standstill picture in costume, that would probably be easy enough to find. Second, I need you to research the French language for this phrase." He repeated the phrase that GenX had said the assailant said. "Try to get a phoenetic match and a translation, please." He was thorougly impressed with the support team that David had set up and wished that the Protectors had something similar.
"Let's see, the first one is easy," she tapped a few keys and the picture of Legionnaire popped up on the screen. "I'll start the phrase match."
Sting pointed to the screen. "Is that the costume that Ben's attacker wore, X?"
"Maybe. Could be. The stick's wrong, this bloke's got no spike, and it was sure as hell a spike what got Ben. The costume, though. Maybe. It was pretty ratty and raggedy, but it could have been," said the young Punk hero.
"I've got a couple of possible hits for you on the phrase. If it is French, the most promising is ``Vous m'avez abbandoner.'' It means, ah, ``you left me,''"said the Squire.
"OK, some of this is starting to make sense." Sting said. "It's very likely that Ben did think he saw a ghost, as I'm fairly convinced that someone went to a lot of trouble to make it seem as if Legionnaire rose from the dead. While I'm not closed-minded to the fact that that COULD happen...I know that he was not buried in costume."
"So this is what we think we know. Ben was killed by someone in a tattered remnant of what could have been and is most likely Legionnaires costume, by someone who spoke French. It's not a lot to know, but it's a start."
"This is starting to sound creepy, mate," was Gen-X's only comment.
Sting could only nod in assent. "I think I've taken enough of your time for one evening. Sir David, if you would be willing to look into the avenues I've suggested and to clear a visit to the crime scene for tomorrow afternoon, I would be in your debt. I intend to meet with my associates and bring them with me to search for further leads."
"I'll arrange it for 2PM, join me here at 1," said David. "Good luck," he offered a hand.
"That I am, the Stetson gave it away I reckon. Jess like you must be Senor Sprocket" he said in response.
"Yeah, that's me. 'Sprocket.' Got a minute? I'd like to talk to you. Preferably outside," he said.
The Cowboy straightened up and tossed a few bills on the bar before following Sprocket outside.
A few bar patrons followed the pair outside. 'Sprocket' stopped, "You're stubborn and you keep sticking your nose in where it isn't wanted. Recently, you cost my employer the services of two valuable employees."
The Cowboy sighed, "They cain't have been too valuable, know what I'm saying?" A nonchalant glance at the two who followed them outside, "they gonna help teach me a lesson? Don't forget I don't learn too well...but I teach gooder than anybody."
There were three other folks watching, two men and a woman. At the Cowboy's glance, they all took a step back and one of the men said, "Not me, bud," and headed back inside. The man in the turtleneck chose that moment to strike. He stepped in and threw a kick at the Cowboy's head.
With a pop of displace air, the Cowboy vanished to reappear a foot or so to the right.
"What the ..." stammered the man. "He's a teleporter, no one said anything about that!" He appeared to be talking to someone behind the Cowboy. Cowboy turned and saw that the woman had shed a coat and was closing in. The Cowboy recognized her as Python, the recent escapee from the PNDF.
The man recovered quickly and attacked again, as did Python. He missed, but Python grabbed Cowboy by the arm.
As her hand fell upon him, the Cowboy snapped an overhand right in her direction, "Lady, you ain't on my dance card."
"Idiot," Python twisted sideways and pulled. The Cowboy went up and over landing on the ground next to her. He rolled to his feet and swung again. Maintaining her grip, she flipped him again.
The man closed in after Python made her second throw and started throwing punches, but the Cowboy managed to flop around and stay clear.
The Cowboy 'ported clear by five meters, then turned and began to concentrate on Python. That let the man close in and attack. The Cowboy took the punch on the jaw and shrugged as Python closed in. Python got another hand on him as the man kept swinging. Cowboy tried to TP clear of the man's punch, but Python's grip on his wrist threw him off. The woman screamed in pain and rage and the Cowboy stifled a cry as the botched TP disrupted them both.
The Cowboy tried to stagger back into the bar, but was caught after only a step or two. Python wrapped him up in her arms and legs and the breath was quickly squeezed out of him.
* * * *When he awoke, it was to darkness. He was bound heavily in chains with a hood or blindfold over his eyes. Python's voice was in the middle of a sentence, " ... the Wanderer. Teleportation, the strength. They're the same build. It is the same man, Richardson."
The man's voice, Richardson he now knew, was next. "Maybe. It's possible. Anyway, I'll make our report. Back in a couple of hours."
The Cowboy thought that delay would leave him worse off than taking a risk now, so he decided to try to teleport clear of his chains, then rip his hood off. A blind teleport was always a risk, but one he felt he had to take. He summoned his concentration and his courage and ... screamed in agony. He could feel the atoms of the chain and his shoulder intermingling and then explosively separating.
With his good arm he yanked the hood off his head and saw Python seated at a table nearby, with the man called Richardson at a door fifteen meters or so away. He was in a warehouse of some kind, although it was mostly empty.
With a solid punch, the Cowboy made a door for himself in the side of the warehouse.
Behind him, Python leapt up from the table and charged as Richardson drew a strange looking pistol and fired. A ball of plasma streaked across the room toward the Wanderer.
With a gentle pop, the Cowboy teleported out of the way of the incoming plasma, but he was not so fortunate in his attempt to avoid the kick. The blow knocked him through the hole he had just made in the wall.
He looked around him and with another pop vanished, just as Python followed him out the hole.
On the street, Python looked around for her vanished foe. Above her on the roof of the warehouse, the Cowboy lay low and tried to catch his breath. Richardson joined Python and the two began to quarter the area.
After a few moments, Richardson spoke, "We've lost him. Let's get out of here before he comes back with reinforcements. If you're guess is right, he's the Wanderer, and he could bring the Protectors down on our heads."
Python gave a long look around, then nodded, "I hate to leave the fight unfinished, but you are right." The two reentered the warehouse.
The Cowboy jogged over to the other side of the warehouse and looked down. There were two cars parked nearby and Richardson and Python were moving quickly towards them, having just exited the warehouse.
Python and Richardson got into their respective cars, and the Cowboy saw his moment. He teleported behind Python's car and upended it.
The Cowboy turned his glare on Richardson and concentrated.
Richardson leapt out of the car and charged. Getting in range, he jumped up for a snap kick, but the Cowboy could easily avoid it. The door to the Python's car flew off its hinges and the angry oriental slithered out like a snake. Richardon landed gracefully and snapped an elbow strike at the Cowboy.
With a pop, the Cowboy vanished from the path of Richardson's punch, reappeared a few feet away and then dissappeared completely, back to the roof of the warehouse.
"Richardson, go!" said Python. "I will entertain our friend until you return. Come out, come out little Wanderer!"
Richardson started the car.
With the car started, Richardson opened the passenger door. "Don't be a fool, Python. Come on."
Python hesitated, then vaulted the car and slid in the door.
The Cowboy popped down to a dumpster in the alley as the car started to pull away. He grabbed it, hefted it over his head and hurled it at the fleeing vehicle.
The dumpster was not the most aerodynamic of missiles, and flew a little long and left. Richardson juked the car and avoided the impact, and the Cowboy saw Python's face in the back window as they turned out onto the road.
With a tip of his Stetson, the Cowboy blew Python a kiss as if to say they would meet again.
As the twosome pulled out of sight, the Cowboy returned to the warehouse and overturned vehicle to look for clues, pulling out his phone and punching in a familiar number.
The Cowboy, or rather let us say the Wanderer, for it was indeed he, called McNally to report the incident and the vehicle information. He then did a quick search of the warehouse but turned up nothing of particular interest before McNally turned up.
He briefed McNally and asked him to run search on Richardson and see what he could find.
"So it looks like the Cowboy's identity is blown, huh?" said McNally.
"Maybe," said the man with a Texas twang. "My daddy told me to always keep an ace up my sleeve," he said causing a look of concern to cross McNally's face. Sometimes the act didn't seem so much like an act, and that was unsettling at times.
Then with a gleam in his eye, the Wanderer broke character, "I just need an alibi, and I'll let you know how it goes. Ta-ta!" A gentle pop and the man was gone, leaving McNally near the upended vehicle.
Soon, the call was placed. And the Wanderer asked the answering squire if he could speak with Dux Britannicus on a matter of importance.
A few moments later, Dux Brittanicus appeared on the screen. "It's like old home week around here. You've been calling every day it seems. Are you sure you want me and not Boudiccea?"
"Alas, tis true," he said dramatically with his arm extended over his face in great shame. "This is a business call, I need a favor. The kind that doesn't have any questions attached."
"Why am I suddenly very afraid?"
"Not necessary," he said in a calming manner. "I need to be there, in body if not in spirit." Naturally, this riddle did not help Dux Britannica at all so he continued.
"Could you issue a global press release stating that the Protectors' Wanderer arrived earlier today to meet with the Round Table?" he asked. "Ooh, ooh, ooh, a photo would be really nice too. Maybe include a pic of me in your fancy flat there, I could send you an image to use if Lady Boudiccea has misplaced all the others I've sent."
"Any particular reason you came here to meet with us?" said Dux.
"Goodwill, Big Ben's funeral, partnership, rugby match, I thought I made it clear when I was there," he said with a grin. "I should have been there for three or four days, so a farewell release is needed too. Don't bother notifying the queen though, I'm already taken."
"Allright. Someday I'd like to know why, though. Maybe you should come out for real and tell us," said Dux.
"That I will do in the near future," he promised. "Right now, I need to be there...and here. I appreciate it, old friend. Tell Lady Boudiccea I said hello."
"Very well. Bye now."
"Look straight ahead, and don't move your lips," T-Rex cautioned his partner in a low whisper. "We may be being watched."
"I could only hope." Amos said as he caught the eye of a pretty ebony co-ed carrying an army bag. "C'mon, lets find a hotel, I'm looking forward to having time for a pint before we have to get down to business."
"That's how they get you, they use the pretty ones," he added looking over his shoulder as they climbed aboard the shuttle.
The ride to the modest hotel was uneventful save for the makeshift code T-Rex tried to teach Amos that they should use when talking in public. The big man politely ignored him as they walked into the lobby. Rooms were secured with minimal difficulty and the two men freshened up before heading out to a local pub that was recommended by the desk clerk.
Upon entering, they noticed it was a more or less a place that seemed to be set aside for the tourist types. A lot of European businessmen and American sightseers were there grabbing a pint and getting cozy. A table off to the side caught their eye and the two men took a seat.
"Think they have fish and chips? I've heard they are good here?"
"Yeah, I'd say so." Amos said as he looked around the room. Yeah, definitely a tourist trap, but if they had Guinness on tap, good enough.
They ordered dinner and a pint and engaged in small talk, but Amos was lost in thought. He was having second thoughts about this, but not for the normal reasons. Their partnership, though solid and based on mutual respect, was still young. And Amos has had years to perfect his powers, while T-Rex was still getting used to the powers that had been thrust upon them. Whoever the murderer of these Peacekeepers was, he was powerful and brutally efficient, if the news accounts were any indication. Even with a seasoned veteran like Sting calling the shots, he had hoped that Midnight Star was up to the task.
After finishing dinner, they walked the streets for a bit before retiring to the hotel. Tomorrow they were meeting up with Sting to get started, and he wanted to be rested and ready.
"No, no" Crosby said. "No cutting the hair, just a dye. I'd like my temples to match the rest of my hair, if you would."
"Oh, midlife crisis, I see?" The stylist joked.
"You could say that." Alex said, laughing.
* * * *A little later, back in his room, Alex stood over the sink, his mustache and goatee nearly gone. This would be the first time in years he's gone clean shaven. The dye and shave didn't completely make him look fifteen years younger...but it helped. It had to, if he was to do what he thought he had to do.
* * * *At roughly a quarter of noon, Sting arrived in the prescribed meeting place, staying out of sight, looking for the arrival of his two "partners".
Soon thereafter, Sting saw the man he recognized as MidKnight approach the destination with confidence. Looking around, he spied Star Lad perched atop a nearby roof keeping an eye on his partner.
With an internal smile, Sting shrank to insect size and, using a nearby drain pipe or ladder, made his way to the top of the roof where Star Lad was standing...
Sting approached the roof and looked out of the pipe, Star Lad was not to be seen! He stepped out onto the roof and then saw the shadow extend across him. Star Lad stood on the edge next to the pipe, his hand glowing with an orb of pale blue cosmic energy.
"Whew," he exclaimed upon recognizing Sting. "You shouldn't go around sneaking up on a guy like that, Meteor Man could have caused you some serious trouble." Sting returned to regular size gazing at Star Lad with a curious tilt to his head.
"I figure that is a good alias to use over here, it'll keep the feds from spying on me," he said matter-of-factly.
Sting thought silently for a moment before responding in a measured, serious tone. "I came to the two of you because of excellent word of mouth. Granted, I was short on time, but I was confident in your ability to help...confident enough to pony up what I did for your services. However, let me point out the fact that no one over here knows who you are; therefore, they have no reason to spy on you. Regardless, I've already told my friends over here...that's the Round Table, the national heroes over here...who you are and why you're with me. I personally don't care about either your conspiracy theories or personal neuroses but please keep them both to yourself and be professional about this mission."
He spoke again with calm yet gentle finality. "Or did I hire the wrong people?"
Star Lad looked at him with a half-smirk, "I expected you to say that." He began to hover and looked down at MidKnight, "it's time to meet." A pale blue trail followed him as he descended next to his partner. "Bugman's got a bee in his bonnet, it could all be part of a greater plan" he said to Amos with an implied warning that Amos naturally shrugged off.
Sting rejoined them on the ground. Before he could say anything, MidKnight whispered to Sting "Ignore him, I always do. He may be a taco short of a combination plate, but he knows his business."
"I hope so." Sting whispered back before addressing both men. "We're meeting Dux Brittanicus, the leader of the Round Table, at Castle Perilous. He will take us from there to the crime site. I'll try to hang back so you guys can keep up. I'll explain when we get there."
With that, Sting took off, with Starlad close behind in the air and MidKnight using his agility to take to the roofs and keep up (somewhat) that way.
Sting had a rental car nearby that he asked MidKnight to drive...carefully. "Makes sense to have a non-masked person at the wheel", Sting said. He gave MidKnight directions, then briefed both heroes on where things stood.
"After speaking with my contacts here," Sting began, "we figured out that Big Ben was killed by a man wearing a tattered remnant of what we believe to be the costume of Ben's former teammate in the Peacekeepers, Legionnaire."
"I thought the Peacekeepers were supposed to be dead," said Star Lad.
"They are," Sting said. "We think that someone with some sort of connection to him could be the perp, mainly because I don't want to think about the other possibilities just yet. In any event, once we reach Castle Perilous, Dux Britannicus will be getting us access to the crime scene. They said it had been gone over pretty thoroughly, but hopefully a fresh set of eyes might turn up something new."
They arrived at the Castle, and after brief introductions were made, they then made their way over to the crime scene.
Big Ben had a ground floor flat in a good part of town, in a building with fairly tight security. On the drive, Dux had explained that while Ben's address was not public knowledge, it was kind of an open seret. "Many of his neighbors knew, and Ben himself was the actual building owner," Dux had said.
The apartment was still sealed off with tape, and a tarpulin had been pegged over the hole in the wall, but otherwise the scene was relatively untouched. As Dux unlocked the door, he commented, "The murder weapon and Ben's body have been removed, of course." He opened the door, "The killer was smart. Inside Ben couldn't reach his full height. The ceilings are double height in here, nearly twenty feet, but Ben couldn't reach his full twenty-five foot height without restricting his ability to move in here. He was about twelve feet tall when he was killed."
The flat had been comfortable before the fight destroyed the living room. In addition to that room, there was a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and a small study.
As he walked the site, Sting and MidKnight began to examine the room looking for anything they could find. As they did, Dux answered some of Star Lad's questions, "He was killed around 2:30 in the afternoon, and was often home at that time. Not always though, suggesting that the killer was watching the site. The killer went, we assume back out the way he came. There were no drugs in Ben's system other than some alcohol. There are no bugs we could find."
As Sting and Star Lad went to examine the hole in the wall, MidKnight walked around the room. He bumped against a stack of newspapers and knocked some of them to the ground.
Nothing seems to be hidden in the papers that fell, and the headlines covered a wide-spectrum of events of the last few weeks - about 12 papers fell. Around the papers on the floor nothing much catches his eye, except a pair of golf shoes and a large map of London and its suburbs. He examined the golf shoes and the map closely, but nothing loomed out at him.
Sting and Star Lad found nothing too interesting around the hole. Although Sting did find a depression to one side of the hole in the soft earth of a garden plot. It was a circular depression perhaps an inch and half or two inches across and maybe an inch deep.
Star Lad looked up to Sting and asked "Pole vault?" He stood up and tried to think through things. Had the killer used a pole to plant and blast through the wall? There couldn't be too many superhero assassins with such an M.O. He went to find Dux and ask him about the find.
The position looked wrong for a pole vault against the wall, but a pole plant of some kind looked right. The easiest way out of the back was over a high iron fence, which had not been battered down.
Star Lad took to the air and landed on the other side of the iron fence to see if there were any more telltale signs or clues that the assailant went this way. After looking over both sides of the fence he found a depression on the inside that did look like a pole vault hole. The other side was asphalt and wouldn't take an impresson from a pole, though, and had been exposed to traffic for several days.
"Escape," he said aloud. It appeared that the murderer used the pole to plant on his escape which means he brought the murder weapon with him, and left it. Was there a message he was trying to convey? The hero re-entered the flat and asked Dux, "Did Big Ben receive any threats or suspect anything? Where would he keep personal letters or an appointment book?"
"If he did, he didn't tell me," said Dux. "It did seem like there might have been something bothering him, though."
Star Lad went into the adjoining study and rifled through the desk, looking for a journal, or something to shed light on what may have been happening in Big Ben's life over the last few weeks. Not a stranger to the tricks of the trade in keeping things hidden, he felt inside the desk looking for any releases or catches to reveal something of value.
MidKnight looked over at the stack of papers which remained, the one on top was folded back to page 6, where a prominent headline read, "Boy Scout Patrol Dies of Exposure." He was looking at that headline when Star Lad joined him.
Star Lad checked over the papers taking care to coordinate the dates, and any pages which may be dog-earred or marked in a certain way. "Did Big Ben have the paper delivered or did he buy these on purpose?" he asked aloud while continuing his search. Glancing over to the golf shoes, "Did he play golf regularly? or was that something new?" Star Lad wondered if he had seen clubs around the flat.
He remembered seeing clubs in a closet. There was a paper for every day and all the same kind, so either he had them delivered or bought one regularly. The only one that seemed marked somehow was the one on the top of the stack, so he skimmed the article that piqued Ben's interest enough to mark it.
"Yeah, I noticed that too." MidKnight said as Star Lad read. He had had another one of his "hunches" when he saw the papers. He admired Star Lad's ability to mentally dissect something...he was learning more daily but still got by more on pure persistance and "hunches" than on any trained forensics ability.
The article said that an entire patrol of Boy Scouts had perished of hypothermia while on a hike on some land on the outskirts of London.
Star Lad reached for the map and tried to locate the scene of the tragedy. "It appears that this shook Ben up enough to mark it, feel like hiking?" he asked MidKnight.
The map covered the area around London in some detail, including the area of the tragedy. In fact, the map had been back-folded to allow that chunk to be clearly seen. The map showed that the scout's camp lay in a piece of private land owned by Sir Daryl MacGrath, and indicated a hiking trail on the land connecting two motorways on each side of the estate.
Sting walked up and the duo filled him in. Something about the article rang a faint bell with Sting. Something he hadn't thought about in many years. "Why don't the two of you look into that?" Sting had said. "There's a different direction that I need to investigate on this." They set a rendevous time and place as well as a contingency plan if one side doesn't contact the other by a certain time.
The heroes agreed to rendezvous at Castle Perilous two days hence, then separated to follow their several investigations. MidKnight and Star Lad went back to their rooms, on the morrow they would try to follow the tracks of the hikers.
"Ms. Rimaud, I am sorry to bother you. My name is Sting, and I'm here from America working with the Round Table. We're investigating the death of one of your late husband's colleagues, Big Ben, and we wanted to speak with you briefly." Sting paused for a moment, thinking of how to say what he wanted to say. "The assailant has been confirmed as wearing a tattered version of Legionnaire's costume."
"Can't you people just leave him alone?" The woman's voice rose rapidly to a shriek. "You killed my husband, and still you haunt him and me. He's dead! I saw his body! I buried him! Leave me alone and let his memory be!"
"Ms. Rimaud, someone is tainting your husband's memory. You would let that be? And what is this about *I* killed your husband?" Sting said calmly. "I understand your grief, but someone is trying to kill the people your husband fought bravely with and died bravely for. I'm sorry, but if someone is trying to tarnish what he did by using his costume and weapons to kill others with, I *can't* let that be."
"I wish he had never worn that costume, if he hadn't he'd be alive today," she continued. "Let me be." With that, she hung up.
"Well, that got me nowhere." Sting said to himself. As frustrating as that was, he wouldn't invade her privacy any more than this, at least without good reason to do so. The conversation brought back too much of the pain involved. His being the sole surivior of the Peacekeepers...other than the traitorous witch Baba Yaga...weighed heavily on him. He would wait until the rendevous with his partners, keeping an eye out on things...before deciding whether or not Aftershock would need to surface after all these years.
* * * *Working from the newspaper story and the map, the heroes for hire were able to find the area where the scouts had been hiking. There was a smallish area of common land, but they soon came to a fence and a posted sign stating that the land beyond was the "MacGrath estate" and hunting was forbidden.
The destination came at the perfect time for Amos who had grow tired of his partner talking about camping near Lake Godluch back home. "We really ought to plan a weekend, I can show you where the bear-men were seen," offered Talbot 'T-Rex' Reckston in reference to one of the stories he had investigated for the Scryer.
The hero paused before the sign and turned to his partner, "Think British lads are like American boys?" Amos hadn't yet grown comfortable with his partner's train of thought and remained silent, as was becoming more and more natural T-Rex answered his own question. "Because no American boy is going to pay attention to any fence."
"Feel like hunting?"
"Keep to the trees and shadows." Amos said. "Let's split up, we'll cover more land that way. Keep your cell phone on vibrate so we don't startle anyone with a sudden ring."
And with that, Amos took to the woods, deftly maneuvering among the trees. He liked T-rex, but his consistent talking wore on him after awhile, and he needed some silent moments like this. The countryside was beautiful, but he didn't have time to take it in...they were on a job, and they needed to complete it.
T-Rex watched him disappear into the woods and shook his head, "so naive for a street-wise kid" he mumbled under his breath. In the opposite direction he entered the woods after skillfully levitating over the fence. Amos was oblivious to the grand conspiracies that ran the world, fortunate for him Star Lad was there to look out for him.
Upon entering the wooded area, T-Rex marveled at the MacGrath estate realizing that this was the big time. 'Stonehenge' 'Loch Ness Monster' 'Jack the Ripper' he thought about while ducking the tree branches, the stories he could crack if he only had the time. This wasn't Hester Cresvores' crazy thoughts about bear men, this was the home of real unsolved mysteries.
They covered a wide swath of land, the estate was apparently quite large. There were several clear paths, neatly edged with stone, and after a while they found a cleared area with several semi-permanent structures on it. It looked like the scouts came here often and had a camp set up.
T-Rex walked over the grounds looking for anything which may have been left behind from the tragedy.
The place was remarkable in its unremarkability. There was no sign that a patrol of eight boys, with two adult leaders, had perished there in the recent past.
"Too clean," he said aloud to Amos. The cleanup crew had done a stellar job which meant either Big Ben found something unusual and it was gone, or whatever got the kids was out there, somewhere. "Think they stumbled onto something and it caught up with them?" he asked.
"More than likely." Amos said. "Lets search deeper. There's got to be something around here somewhere...maybe a cave or an out of the way dwelling."
T-Rex agreed and pointed off deeper into the woods away from the beaten paths.
To the south, the woods ended fairly quickly at the motorway. To the north, eventually the woods gave out into lawns and some distance away what was presumably the home of the owner.
"Not much else here," T-Rex commented. He turned to Amos, "Care to make a house call? I have my press pass somewhere in my backpack."
"Lead on." Amos said. He was more than happy to let T-Rex talk when the situation warranted.
The two hikers made their way to the main estate building and approached. "I can either make up something innocent, or go for the goal line and say we're here covering the scout troop tragedy. Which do you feel most comfortable with?" he asked as they wound their way up to the front door.
"It's like I keep telling you," Amos said, "Why lie when the truth gets us to the point faster? Besides, if there is nastiness there, they're gonna be in for a rude surprise."
T-Rex grinned, Amos made the perfect teammate, even if he often failed to see the puppeteer's strings on the global scale. The knocker rapped and T-Rex fingered his press pass as he awaited the door to be answered.
After a few moments, the door was opened by a man in tweeds. "Yes?" he inquired politely.
T-Rex smiled and put on his best shmooze act, "Good afternoon sir, are you master of the house?"
"Mr. MacGrath is not seeing company, perhaps I can help you?"
T-Rex showed his press pass to the man, "My name is Talbot Reckston with the American press and we are investigating the terrible tragedy that took place on this property."
The man put on a sad face, "It was terrible wasn't it? Mr. MacGrath was so distraught he fell ill. He allows the scouts to hike and camp on his property, you know. Now, though, they've gone and are not likely to return for a while. The memory is too fresh, you see."
"Yes," he concurred mournfully. "Perhaps Mr. MacGrath would find comfort in speaking to us. It could help many worldwide when they read of his courage in dealing with this grief."
"His doctor has confined Mr. MacGrath to his bed and asked that he have no visitors."
"We are sorry to hear that," he glanced at Amos, "may we speak with you then?"
T-Rex thanked the man for his generosity and extended his arm for Amos to enter ahead of him, hoping to spawn an invitiation to enter. His hope was denied as the man showed no inclination to open the door.
With a shock at the rudeness, T-Rex responded, "Did you change your mind? I thought you had agreed to speak with us and the American people about this tragedy." He punctuated the urgency with an exaggerated shiver in the crisp winter air.
With ill-grace, the man opened the door and indicated a door off to one side. "I can spare only ten minutes, my duties here keep me very busy. Step into the drawing room please." When the reporters had done so, he stepped in after them and pulled the door closed. "I thought this had all been settled months ago, and the unpleasant incident behind us. What more can you wish to know that has not already been said?"
"Such tragedies tug on the heart," T-Rex began, "wasn't it odd that scouts, who by their very motto are prepared for everything, were overcome by the elements? It must have been quite a cold snap."
"Yes, it was very odd. It was cold that night, and they must have let the fire die. Then ..." his voice trailed off. "The cold can creep up on one."
"Then...?," T-Rex echoed the timbre of the man in hopes of drawing out his unsaid thought. Early on he had honed the journalistic art of sensing when a subject wanted to say something, and with gentle force he probed deeper. There was something at the forefront of his heart and mind, the key was to bring it out. He decided to gamble, "A man of your compassionate heart speaks with the sympathy of a nation, I'm sure there are many parents who still feel the guilt of not doing all they could to prevent this. A subtle pause before the word 'guilt' hopefully would trigger whatever it was to cause him to reveal something of use.
The man looked up sharp at the word guilt, "Guilt? There is no guilt. It was an accident, a tragic accident."
T-Rex eyed the man suspiciously yet spoke sympathetically, "Oh I didn't mean to imply that you were responsible for any of the misfortune. I suspect that the grieving parents have misplaced guilt in that they allowed their children to go camping. Of course they couldn't have known."
The reporter glanced over to his partner, hoping that Amos would either jump in or give him a sign that the subtle approach was not working and that they ought to go for broke and make a wild accusation that could target them for reprisals. In some cases, the easiest way to get information was to have the facts come up and punch you in the nose.
"When you say 'accident'", Amos said, "what exactly do you mean? It was to my understanding that they died of hypothermia. Tragic, certainly, but how can hypothermia be 'accidental'? Were they unprepared? You speak as if you knew the children, since they were guests on the property several times. Did you know any of them personally? Or the scoutmaster?" Amos smiled warmly (the first time T-Rex had ever seen him do so). "I'm sorry if the questions seem very rapid fire...my own son died in a similar accident overseas years ago, so this assignment is somewhat of a...personal one for me. I'm sure you can understand."
"All I mean was that the fire must have gone out accidentally. At least, I assume that was what happened. The fire died, and then, ah, so did the scouts," said the man. "I didn't know the children personally. I had met the Scoutmaster once or twice, when he called here -- he used to do that to let us know when the scouts when would be camping."
"Was anyone else camping that evening?" T-Rex asked, marvelling at how well his partner could lie.
"Not that I know of," was the answer, "and I should have known, although someone could have easily snuck in if they had wished."
Amos looked at his partner. "I think that should do it for now. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, sir."
"Of course," the man showed them out and watched as they made their way back down the road.
T-Rex spoke up as the twosome cleared the front gate, "That conversation sure didn't convince me that whatever happened was an accident." He kicked a stone off into the treeline, "Think he's the type to call the cops?"
"Probably not," Amos said as they walked back to where their car was. "I don't think he wants any more attention to himself or his employer...he was NOT keen on letting us in the house and even then he was very guarded beyond that. That may not mean guilt, but it does mean suspcion. Let's rendevous with our backer and talk to him about this...I think his abilities will come in handy when we come back at nighttime to do a recon."
"Roger that," he concurred climbing into the car.
Which is why, one night he found himself begging off an offer to go have a beer with Sarge after work and went instead to a bar where Sarge would never go to associate with the kind of people Sarge would never assoicate with.
After the usual teasing about "going straight," the conversation began to move back onto well worn paths: who was going to jail, who was getting out, what capers were in the offing and so on. One story caught Flex'es ear. It seems that there had been a couple of breakins in some mansions in Old Town, but they were being kept very quiet -- no publicity. But someone had heard from a guy who knew a guy, that the guards were being taken out with arrows or something, and at one job, they had found one of those short crossbow arrows, whaddyacallem, bolts, stuck into a wall.
"Hmm" Jim pondered the strange meaning of this news. "Sounds like our old friend Quarrel might be back in action. Except I thought they had also thought of going straight." Jim thought over the strange news.
"Whaaat? You're kidding," Jim said with enough dramatic flair to encourage the speaker to recognise that he had an attentive audience. "Come on..." Jim chided, "What year is this? No body goes around firing weapons like that. What have you been smoking?
Jim saw how the other men around the story teller took on board his cynical attitude. It certainly sounded strange but then Port Alexander was familiar with the strange, as Jim well knew. He had fought it on more than one occasion and his alter ego Flex.
Jim waited seeing how the story teller would rebuff his verbal challenge. Jim's hoped he had baited him with enough to fight back with, what he hoped might be, further revelations about the strange robberies.
"It sounded weird to me, too, but that's what this guy said," said the man. "I guess it's possible, with all the whack-jobs in tights running around." The crowd burst into laughter at that, although it was a little subdued since they knew that that there were paranormals working both sides of the fence and either side might be listening in.
Jim nodded as he smiled. He waited till the conversation moved on and people milled about and then sought the story teller out. "Say that was a neat story, friend. Can you tell me any more about who you heard it from?" Jim sought to sound casual. "Wanna make sure I don't go in half cocked on this." He thought to himself.
"Jimmy Donuts said he heard it from a guy who works as a guard out there sometimes," said the man.
Jim had to wonder if he was going to get anywhere with this lead or not. Jimmy Donuts was a small time hood, who sometimes worked for various low end crime bosses. Jim know of him, but didn't actually know him. Given what he had already learned, though, it would be easy to figure out which locations had been robbed, even if the victims were trying to keep it quiet.
Jim took the opportunity to make himself scarce. There was little likelihood of finding out any more tonight. "Besides," Jim thought to himself, "There aren't many places that have their guards shot by crossbow bolts! So I should be able to find the scene of the crime. And from there carry on looking for clues."
As he walked out into the cool night air his mind reflected on the his last encounter with a criminal who did use such a weapon that fired such lethal bolts. Richard Sherwin was his name a.k.a Quarrel. A rich guy who collected certain period pieces.
"I guess the Protectors were going a bit soft, assuming that character would reform." Jim said to himself thinking back to when he travelled back in time with him. "That is assuming of course that it is the same guy behind all this."
Jim thought about his options. "First I better see what I can find at the scene of the crime. Once I have discovered where it is of course. Second I'd better have a chat with Mr Sherwin, then see where things take me from there. Jim, old boy. You and Flex'll have your work cut out for you. Bought time though I've been itching for some action. Boy it might be dangerous but it has its rewards being a Super Hero." Jim smiled, then laughed feeling great at the thought of getting some action as Flex again.
Jim was able to discover which manors had been hit, there were two of them located a few miles apart. As he planned his approach he checked further with a few other contacts, including Sarge, but learned little of value. Upon consideration, he decided that impersonating a cop probably wouldn't work in this kind of investigation -- not only had the police and CSI already been and gone, but this type of person would want ID and that sort of thing.
"What to do now?" Jim thought through his options. Still being somewhat new to the whole hero thing, it took him some time to consider the direct approach. "Why not!" He thought to himself. "After all I am gaining a reputation as a crime fighter. It couldn't hurt to turn up, as Flex." As he thought through the idea he decided that, all things considered, this may the best approach.
So at the next available opportunity, Flex used all the local means of transport and choose the first to the two house that had been attacked to visit. Easily negotiating the grounds, he made for the front entrance. [And assuming he is not stopped] Once at the front door he rang the bell and waited for someone to answer the door. "Here goes nothing...or everything!" Flex muttered to himself as he waited.
The door opened to reveal a pretty young woman, neatly dressed. She was obviously expecting someone else, for she did a double-take at Flex'es appearance on her step. "Oh, hello," she said. "Who are you?"
"Evening mam. Er, you may have read about me in the press. People call me Flex."
"Oh, yes. Flex. I think I have read about you."
"I am sorry to disturb you mam. But I have come because I heard something about a burglary that took place. I know the thing was being kept quiet but I was interested in who might be behind this. May I come in and perhaps ask you a few questions?" Flex waited for the young lady to reply, all the while wondering if she might give him the brush off.
"Oh, very well. Come in. Would you like a cup of coffee or tea?" After taking Flex'es drink order, and making some coffee for herself, she settled down at the dinner table. "I don't know what else I can tell you, the police have been over it all."
"Well I appreciate that mam!" Fles said in a respectful tone. "The thing is why would someone break into your house and use such a strange weapon on your security guards. For that matter, If I have understood things properly, why did you need security?"
Flex began to pace the room as he thought through the situation. "I am not the police mam. But I have fought a highly trainned marksmen, who had an eye for historic items of value. He called himself Qurrel. And used such a device to get what he wanted. Now if am to get to the bottom of this, perhaps it would help if you told me what went on. You know everything." Flex spoke the last line directly to the young lady, as he stopped his pacing to listen to her reply.
"Well, the neighborhood here has a guard. This is a gated community, as you saw when you came in. Johnson, that's the guard, says that he heard a noise from our yard and came to investigate. That's all he remembers. The police said they found a crossbow bolt stuck in the wall near where Johnson was knocked out. Our safe was opened with some kind of acid, they say, and money and jewelry was taken. I don't know what else I can tell you."
Flex listened intently, making a mental note to scribble down the pertinent facts later. As he listened he thought of another tack.
"Hmm," Flex made what he thought sounded like a sympathetic note, in his voice. "This has obviously all been a terrible ordeal for you, I'm sure!" In fact Flex wasn't sure at all. As "Sly" Jim Reed, he had never thought about the victim before. In fact in many ways in his past life he felt like the victim. But now he began to get a inkling. Just a small idea of what it might be like to be on the receiving end of a crime, for once.
"I am sorry to make you relive this whole experience again. But, as I am sure you can appreciate, any information. Anything at all. Can help us catch the person behind this." Flex wanted to sound earnest, but hoped he didn't come across sounded like a boy Scout.
"Is there anything else you can tell me? Something you may have told no one else or forgotten to tell the police. Anything else at all! No matter how trivial."
"I don't think so. I'm sorry I can't help you further," she said.
"Fine well I won't keep you any longer mam." Flex said as he turned to leave. "I probably have had more of your time that I ought. If anything does come up...I guess you could get ahold of me via the Protectors." Flex added with a bow, as he thought, "Assuming they don't mind."
"I don't suppose you know where they came in? Where this cross bow bolt was found?"
"I can show you where they found the bolt and where the guard was found, let me get a coat," she started away.
Flex stopped and looked at her as if to go then continued musing to himself, "Strange isn't it that someone should bring a crossbow. Fire it. But then knock out the guard. I mean why fire...unless they were a lousy aim." Flex let the statement stand before finishing with a final question. "This guard been with you long has he?" Flex raised an eyebrow and allowed the contour of his mask to mirror it, deliberately exaggerating his mask's features.
The woman returned with her coat. "Johnson? I don't really know. The neighborhood management company handles the hiring. But he'd been here for at least a couple of years."
"Hmm. Ok, that figures," Flex said as he rested his chin on his hand.
"It is a little odd, though," the woman continued, "I think the police said that Johnson had been knocked out by a blunted bolt, or something like that, but they didn't find that one."
"Now that is a little odd. There is clearly more to this than meets they eye. Your burglar clearly wanted Johnson out of the way. But decided against murder. Now lets see this site." Flex said as he gestured for the young lady to lead the way.
Flex thought about Johnson and the company that hired him. "Perhaps it would be worth looking him up through the company." Flex thought to himself. But then dismissed it, as if a company was going to let information out to a stranger about one of their employees.
"Only thing for it is to go to the second site. But perhaps it'll be worth calling in on a certain millionaire with a flair for trick shots, first." Flex liked the idea and decided to spend his next evening calling in on Richard Sherwin.
"In the meantime I wonder what I can find going down in the parts tonight." Flex aid to himself as he lept to a nearby rooftop and on into the night.
StarLad spoke up in a whisper, "Think the British government is behind this? you know, a weather machine. Big Ben could've stumbled on it and they had to eliminate him." Amos could tell that his partner was on the conspiracy jive again, and was just killing time.
The penetration of the house was made without difficulty. Sting was able to quickly get the layout and began a more thorough looking over. There appeared to be quite a few people living in the house and a few of them were up even at this hour. They all had the pallor of those who did not often get out into the daylight. However, that was not a crime in and of itself. Most of the bedrooms were occupied, but a few were not. Of those, one was maintained in a state of high readieness, almost like a shrine. The room was clean but had not been tidied, almost like a child's room might be preserved after he had left home. Sting felt a thrill of success when he saw, arranged on the dresser, a row of pictures, publicity shots of the Peacekeepers. There was little else in the room to arouse his suspicion, though.
He continued his search and found, in the basement, a storage room which could be secured from the outside. It had been converted to something that looked like a cross between a bedroom and a hospital room. There he found a shred of cloth, part of a costume, perhaps, in the colors of the Peacekeeper Legionnaire.
"Paydirt." Sting thought to himself. He secured himself in the shadows of one of the rooms in the corner and signaled his teammates.
"MidKnight" came the voice on the other end, at a low whisper.
Sting returned the whisper. "Found a piece of the Legionnaire costume. Looks like we've got our lead...good work. Now...we wait. This might be awhile, so take shifts until I'm in touch again. Although if I engage, you may not need a signal. Sting out."
He then settled in the corner and kept his eyes and ears open.
MidKnight closed the phone. "Sting said this is our target, but we need to sit tight until we hear back from him." he said.
StarLad nodded and sat down next to a tree, "guess I'll stay grounded, no use in getting spotted." The hero looked out over the estate, and asked his partner in a whisper "What do you think we're going to find?"
Time passed and Sting grew fidgety. He examined the room again, and decided that perhaps it had not been occupied for a while. Now that he had calmed down a bit from the initial excitement, he could see that there was some dust and other indications that the room was no longer in use.
Sting decided to recon the house one more time, ending in the bedroom he had seen earlier. Maybe he could gain a better clue of what we were dealing with ... and who.
Nothing new struck his eye except the group photo of the Peacekeepers. It was the only shot of more than one person, and showed the Peacekeepers and their handler, Major Jack Richards, standing in front of the UN Building. It was a famous picture, used in a lot of UN publicity material. On closer examination, he also realized that the individual Peacekeeper photos were separated into two groups. The first, slightly to the left, was Aftershock, Fliedermaus and Scirocco. The second was Baba Yaga, Big Ben, Jade Tiger and Tsunami.
After making sure no one was nearby, Sting quietly looked on the back of the photos...looking for writing or somesuch.
There was nothing written on the backs, but something about the whole situation nagged at the back of his mind. He looked at the pictures again. All the Peacekeeper were there, except for Legionnaire! And why were Aftershock, Fliedermaus and Scirocco grouped together?
It occurred to him that the three grouped together were the ones that had "died" in the battle with the First World, along with Legionnaire. The others had not died...however, Tsunami had died shortly before and Baba Yaga had betrayed the team and left immediately before. Therefore, whoever was behind this knew about the "final battle" but not about the other events leading up to it. This, to his mind, disqualified both Yaga and Ripper as the two likely candidates.
Something about Ripper, however, scratched at the back of his mind.
Quickly but quietly, he searched the room for anything that would have a name attached to it, flight plans, receipts, anything that could and would tie the resident further to either the murders or to a connection with Legionnaire. There was a frustrating nothing.
Sting thought some more...it was at that moment that he really missed Ka-Sador. For someone with no knowledge of our world when he came here, he had an uncanny eye for detail and the true mind of the detective. Sting was and always had been the "brick" of the teams he was in...as in strong as and smart as. Lately, though, he keeps finding himself in more and more situations where using his brain was necessary...and he wasn't overly comfortable with it. In fact, the thought made him rather pale...
Sting remembered the pallor of the gentlemen roaming the mansion, and then he remembered the last time he saw a similar pallor...on the face of his wife when she...
Sting shrank and sped outside to where Midnight Star was stationed. He grew up to full height, which startled MidKnight.
"What the..." Midnight spat out before Sting silenced him with a hand. "Grab your stuff, we're out of here. I know who killed Big Ben."
Once they reached the car, Sting dialed Castle Perilous.
Star Lad glanced over to his partner and whispered, "This is getting weird. I doubt we're finished here, be alert."
The Squire on duty at the switchboard took the call. "What can I do for you, Sting?"
"I need to speak with Dux Brittanicus, please. It's in regards to the Big Ben case." Sting said. "I know it's late, but it's important." Sting immmediately pulled the car out from where it was parked and was driving towards the castle in case they needed to be there.
"I know who killed Ben, and by extension probably Jade Tiger as well. Does the name Ripper mean anything to you?" Sting said.
"Ripper, wait ... wasn't he one of the Peacekeeper's foes?"
"Ripper was the man that killed Tsunami." Sting said. "I'm headed towards the castle now, I really don't want to go into details over an unsecure line. There may not be much we can do now but if there is, time is of the essence. Ripper is a very dangerous individual."
StarLad mumbled to MidKnight "Oh great, think it's too late to up our fee?" He received a quick elbow to the ribs for his trouble and momentarily pouted as the scenery rushed by the window.
"Allright, I'll meet you there," said Dux.
"I appreciate it." Sting said. "I also need to ask one question of GenX...he doesn't necessarily need to be there but if you can have him on conference call, that would suffice."
The heroes arrived at the Castle and were ushered into a conference room where Dux and GenX were waiting. He indicated a monitor, "I've pulled the Ripper's file. A nasty piece of work, wasn't he?"
Sting walked up to Dux and handed him a folded piece of paper before replying. "Yes, he was. I think part of the reason Ben died was that he was getting close to him as well. First things first, though. GenX, I need you to remember something. During the battle, I know you were dazed, but do you recall the assailant touching Ben? At all? Or did he just plant the spear right off?"
"I don't remember it, but I was pretty out of it pretty quick," said X.
"OK, this is what we discovered." Sting said. "MidKnight and Star Lad found this mansion. Their discussion with the Butler had been suspicous, so I did a little "short" recon myself. I found a room with remnants of a Legionnaire costume along with another room with pictures of the Peacekeepers...seperated between those that had died in battle against the First World, and those who hadn't...but with Legionnaire's photo completely missing. In addition, that mansion had several inhabitants that had a very pale, ghostly pallor to them...similar to what Ripper's victims had."
"I'm almost convinced Ripper is involved in this, but I'm not one hundred percent sure of his connection with Legionnaire or why he's using his costume to "haunt" the former Peacekeepers. From what I recall, mind games were not necessarily his forte. But I do know that he's probably responsible for the "hypothermia" those kids contracted, and if you look at Jade Tiger's autopsy, her being buried in an avalanche would be a convenient cover for a power drain as well."
"That's horrible," said Dux. He looked at the screen, "You're right, it says here that the Ripper's victims had symptoms that could be easily mistaken for hypothermia. You mean to say that he just ... ate ... the whole scout troop?"
Sting grimly nodded. "I shudder to think that he would have been that hungry to absorb energy from that many people. Chances are they found something they shouldn't have."
Star Lad cleared his throat and all eyes looked to him, "Um, if some guy is sucking the life out of kids and we know where his feeding grounds are why don't we just raid the estate. The old man must know where this Ripper is."
"From the look of the mansion, Ripper apparently hasn't been there recently. He probably uses it as a stopgap base between his operations." Sting said. "I *do* have an idea that I think will draw him out...but it really depends on being able to find a reason for 'the idea' to appear in England."
Sting turned to MidKnight and StarLad. "Would the two of you mind waiting outside for a moment? I need to discuss something with Dux that isn't public knowledge."
"Um, sure." MidKnight said before his partner could say anything. The two men stepped outside with one of the Squires as Sting turned to his old friend.
"Here's what I had in mind." Sting began ...
StarLad leaned against the wall outside and spoke to his partner. "I don't know about you, but I don't like the sound of this. We were hired to find out who offed Sting's friend. Sounds to me like he knows who it is, and I'm not too keen on duking it out with some lifeforce vampire."
MidKnight stared at his partner. "Ok, yes, we were *hired* to be detectives. However, we were *called*...money or not...to be heroes, whether it's a punk with a gun holding up a mom and pop store or a lifeforce vampire that has murdered a LOT of people.
MidKnight's voice lowered and deepened at the same time, every word measured to convey to his partner that he just hit his "wall of annoyance"...the point where's he's had quite enough. "We took this case to make a name for ourselves. I hate to tell you this, partner, but we're not gonna do that busting nickel-and-dimers. I know you've had it rough, homes, but if you're always going to be afraid of taking that next big step, of doing the right thing...if you're not ready to put your body on the line, then you might want to go back to being a pencil jockey for that rag you work for, toss your stone into the ocean, and quit...wasting... my...time."
StarLad straightened up and took a step forward. Closing the gap to look dead-on into the eyes of his partner he stated equally forceful, "Fame ain't what its cracked up to be. If all you care about is a guest spot on Leno, your own bobblehead, or kids wearing your face on a t-shirt then maybe I am wasting your time. I'm in this gig to do what is right, I'm not in it to be rich or famous. You want to be a pawn to the highest bidder or biggest PR firm, then fine. I thought it was about helping out those who had no other options, this ain't our jurisdiction and...," it dawned on him that his voice had steadily grown and he dialed it back a few decibels. "The Round Table is more than capable of finding and prosecuting this guy...if they wanted to."
"So just because Sting isn't a welfare case, he's not worth our time? Is that what you're saying man?" MidKnight replied. "And this isn't about fame or glory...it's about doing what's right, but part of it is the fact that this *is* my living. But that's not the big part. This is about helping people...of all races, all ethnicities, and all income brackets. There's NOTHING wrong with making a living while doing this...and at this point, there's something about a bunch of innocent children that DIED at the hands of this thing...the same people who had no other option but to DIE...that makes me want to see this through to the end. If you're too scared to do that, then I'll see you *if* and *when* I get home. Have a nice flight back."
StarLad chuckled at the lame assertion that he was afraid. "From the get-go I told you we ought to be careful about Mr. Protector Sting. You asked him yourself about why he didn't pull in his boys. Some partners we are, we're stuck outside like the chaffeur and the pool boy while the man talks over the ways to put us in danger. Or maybe you need to get the dollar signs out of your eyes so you can see when you've been bought and paid for like property by the Park Avenue set."
"I say we blow this joint and go find out who offed the kids on our own terms, instead of being just the hired help. Unless when we get back home you're going to let every client with cash dictate how you act, dress, and talk."
"Or are you scared to do the job the right way?"
"Or," MidKnight interrupted, "they could honestly be talking about things that we, quite frankly, have no business of knowing. Like secret identities, for instance. It's obvious that they know more about each other than we're intended to know. If you're so damn paranoid, why don't we *ASK* them what's going on and why we're not being privy to it?"
"And as far as dollar signs go, your eyes were as big as mine, you saw the possibilities of what we could really do with this project with this one big score...and the last we checked, being 'for hire' means that we're being hired for a purpose. I don't see any reason in being unprofessional and ditching Sting when simply TALKING to the man might be worth our time."
StarLad crossed his arms, "Sell your service, not your soul." The cosmic empowered hero went silent thereby calling an end to the argument as he found a place on the wall across from the meeting room and just waited.
It was then that the door opened and Sting walked out, finished with his conversation with Brittanicus. Looking at both men, he seemed a bit uncomfortable. "I heard raised voices out here, is there a problem?" Sting said.
MidKnight looked at his partner, then jerked his head towards Sting with a "Now's your chance" look.
StarLad answered, "No problem. How may we serve you?"
Sting looked at StarLad. "Actually...I was coming out to brief you guys. I'm sorry about the closed doors...on more than one occasion...but there are things Dux knows about me that aren't common knowledge, and while I'm sure the both of you are on the up and up...everyone has secrets to protect. Otherwise, we wouldn't wear masks, right?"
"In any event...if you remember in the dossiers, there was one hero from the Peacekeepers that was never confirmed to be dead. His name was Aftershock. His powers are similar to mine, as is his build. The plan is that I'm going to impersonate Aftershock in an attempt to draw Ripper out of the woodwork. We're hoping that the revelation of an old enemy still being alive will do the trick.
"I will admit to the both of you that this was a bit more than I thought it was going to be when I hired you. As far as I'm concerned, you've done everything I've asked and more. However, I'll be straight with you in that Ripper may be more than I can handle myself. I don't have any hard evidence of Ripper being behind this, and the Round Table right now is very shorthanded due to injury and other assigments. I could really use your help on this one.
"I don't blame you if the two of you take the money and run at this point...but to be honest, while I do need the help, I also need to protect my friends and family. I'm sorry if this makes you feel disposable...believe me, I don't think that of you. I..."
Sting's voice trailed off. "It's very hard for me to explain. I just know I need your help, but I have no right to demand it based on our deal."
"Ordinarily, " StarLad began, "we'd advise against something that risky. But this whole thing is far from ordinary, and you obviously know more about this than we do." He glanced over to MidKnight, "This Ripper guy have any friends or associates that we can plan on showing up?"
"Not to my knowledge." Sting said. "There were many people in that mansion but I'm betting that their servants more than anything. It's my intention to try and force a showdown with him at the outskirts of the mansion, far from people that could get hurt." Sting said. "The two of you have a good/bad situation in that you both can strike from a distance, but I'm honestly not sure if he can absorb pure energy as opposed to from a person...never got a good look at it as the one time the Peacekeepers faced him he took me out early in the fight. All I know is when I woke up, one of my teammates was dead. He plays for keeps."
StarLad sighed nervously and asked, "Are we playing for keeps?"
He elaborated, "We are going to arrest him, aren't we? I don't want any blood on my hands.
"That is the plan, yes." Sting said without hesitation. "As much as this...thing...has cost me, this isn't about vengeance, it's about justice."
He saw the blank stares of his comrades at that statement, and Sting took a deep breath...and a leap of faith. "Ripper also killed my wife."
MidKnight raised an eyebrow.
StarLad glanced to his partner and wondered what in the world they got themselves into.
"In a way," Sting said, "the fact that I have no ties with you beyond business ones...will help keep me as honest as I need to be in this."
Sting took a deep breath before speaking again. "OK, here's how I outlined things with Dux."
"Bolo" Flex said handing extending his hand. "Its good to see you to. I am here to see Mr Sherwin. Its about a case I am on. I wanted to know if he could help with my inquiries." Flex waited assuming he would be shown in.
"Come on in," Bolo pushed the door open. "Dick, you've got a guest - Flex."
A moment later, Sherwin appeared at the top of a flight of stairs and came down with a grace and sureness that belied his handicap. "Flex, come in, sit down. Would you like a drink?"
"No, I am OK. Thanks, Mr Sherwin," Flex said as he took the seat that was offered him.
"I am not sure if this is a wild goose chase really. But I came across a strange serious of robberies that have happend recently. Although the items stolen are not the sort of things you may have gone for...the robber has been using crossbow bolts of some discription." Flex moved forward on his seat. His direct approach was forceful and may seem rude. "I am am sure that you have nothing in this. But you'll agree, I am sure, it sure sounds strange that there are two people running around with this M.O. Is there anyone you might have trained up. Or anyone else you know who might be in on this? I really feel like i am grasping in this one at present." Flex sought to look non confrontational and hoped his demenour would not cause offence. But he needed to be direct - how else could he be sure.
Sherwin frowned, "That does seem odd. I haven't trained anyone, and I don't know of anyone else who used a crossbow."
"Hmm. I didn't expect much else." Flex said. This was frustrating he was not detective he was used to avoiding detection. "OK well thanks anyway. It was a longshot. But I figured if anyone else heard about this they may also beat a path to your door." Flex said as he began to get up from the seat. "Well guess I'm back to square one for the moment."
Flex got up and placed his hand behind his head as he rubbed his neck. He had, had a long day already and it didn't seem like it was going to end anytime soon. Honest work he may do but he honestly felt very tired. "Listen thanks for seeing me. Maybe I'll see you around sometime." With that Flex quickly made his exit.
Once he was sure he was away from the prying eyes of the house he doubled back. Leaping onto one of the walls, he now had the chance to continue to practice he new found flexible refinement - wall crawling. He carefully moulded his hands into the custom suction pads that would take his weight as he moved about the outside of the building. Making his way around the house he looked in the windows to see if he could find Richard Sherwin and Bolo.
"They may have been telling the truth..." Flex thought to himself, "...But not everybody is ready to be a boyscout like me. I need to be sure that these guys or on the up and up." Flex thought as he carefully peered through another window, looking for confirmation either way.
The two men were in the room where he had left them, talking.
Flex had to wonder if he wasn't taking this a step two far. But then again Sherwin was a known criminal, his MO could be all over this. So Flex waited, knowing he could not lip read or hear the conversation, he contented himself with watching. Watching for any clue that would help him decide if Sherwin had any part in this.
They talked for a few minutes longer, then Sherwin turned to head back up the stairs, and Bolo sat on a couch and grabbed a TV remote.
Flex crawled along the wall to peek in on Sherwin, and saw the blind ex-villian in a darkened room, running his fingers over a book open in his lap - braille, Flex guessed. Deciding he had learned as much here as he was likely to, he leaped down and headed back toward town.
Sting cleared his throat and made a deliberate effort to speak at a slightly higher pitch, to differentiate the voice from what he normally uses as both Sting and Crosby and to approximate what he sounded like at that younger age.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the world press, what you see before you is neither ghost nor hoax. For the safety of family and friends, while I cannot reveal the man behind the mask publicly, I am, in fact, the man...and former Peacekeeper...known as Aftershock."
"I am well aware that the majority of the world thought me dead in the final conflict with the First World that in effect dissolved the Peacekeepers as we know it. When it was announced that I was presumed dead...I had many wounds, both physical and psychological to heal, and I thought it best that Aftershock not 'come back to life', as it were, at that time. In the years since, many other heroes, such as the Round Table, have arose, and my own life became such that I saw no reason for Aftershock to reappear. Until recently, when I have learned of the wanton slaughter of my surviving comrades...specifically the former Peacekeeper known as Big Ben.
"Dux is a good friend that I thankfully made some time ago," Sting said in a truthful yet twisted fashion, "and he informed me about this. He thought that as Ben's friend, I should know. It was my decision to finally break an 8 year silence, to return for one reason and one reason only...to bring Big Ben's killer to justice.
"The gentlemen behind me," Sting said, gesturing to MidKnight and Star Lad, "are new to the cause, gentlemen that I befriended and agreed to help train in the use of their powers. They have graciously agreed to accompany me to help in any way they can. The Round Table, and Dux in particular, has been invaluable in their help of my investigation...and I am happy to say that the investigation has borne fruit.
"While I can't comment fully on an ongoing case for the safety of all involved, I can say that I am reasonably sure I know who killed Big Ben. I also believe, albeit with less proof, that this individual was also responsible for the death of another former Peacekeeper, Jade Tiger, in the Himalayas. I also know that in killing Ben, this despicable villian actually did so in the guise of the Peacekeepers former leader, Legionnaire, in an abomination of the good name of a great man and a great leader.
"It is my intention to bring this killer to justice, and then retire once more. While I am always willing to help in an emergency, my days of regular adventuring are past. But I couldn't just sit by and let someone pick apart my former comrades...my friends...one by one using the visage of yet another. As someone who is now apparently the sole known...or at least now known *chuckle*...member of the Peacekeepers, I couldn't allow this to go on.
"Therefore, I send this message directly to the killer. I know who you are. And even if the rest of the world needs further evidence I am who I am...I think you know for a fact that I am who I am. Furthermore, I know where you have been, and where you will return to at some point. If your goal is to eliminate...to eradicate...the Peacekeepers, you know that your goal is unfulfilled until you face me. I will be where I have described you to be somewhere tonight. I challenge you to do the same. You killed Ben by making him feel he was facing a ghost. It's time for you to do the same."
Sting straightened up to signal that his statement was done. "I am willing to take exactly three questions, and then I need to return to my investigations. However, as a reminder, I cannot and will not answer any other questions in regards to my investigation."
"Aftershock, Mike Jenkins, BBC World News. What is the identity of this mysterious killer? Is it one of the Peacekeepers old foes?"
Sting laughed once the question came out. "That's what I admire about the world press, your tenacity. I wouldn't expect anything less. Mr. Jenkins, as previously stated, I cannot make any further comment about the ongoing investigation, although I think you might be able to surmise the answer to your second question simply by the targets involved."
"Paula Rodriguez, Associated Press. If there is a vendetta, as you seem to be implying, who else might be on the killer's hit list? Perhaps the mysterious Baba Yaga who vanished into Russia?"
"I couldn't answer that for sure, but I would think that the killer would attempt something in that regard if he were to actually know Baba Yaga's location. I'm certain that there are several people, in fact, who would like to know where she is nowadays."
"Linda Carlyle, Daily Sun. What was Scirrocco really like? Is there any truth to the rumours of an affair between the two of you?"
"No truth to the second part of the question. As for the first, Scirrocco was a credit to her country, to the Peacekeepers, and to humanity as a whole, and she is sorely missed by many. I'm sorry, I need to end the questions at this time."
As the heroes left the room, MidKnight turned to Sting. "You think they bought it?" he said.
"It doesn't matter if they bought it. Only if *he* bought it" Sting replied. "You gentlemen may want to get some rest for awhile. I'll meet you at the rental car outside your hotel just before dark...we're going back out to the country tonight."
* * * *As the heroes arrived back at the estate, MidKnight Star Investigations took up positions around the perimeter of the grounds around the treeline. The twosome carefully selected their vantage points to be able to see the estate as well as maintain a position of cover in case there was trouble. They waited silently as Sting entered the mansion to retrieve the butler, hoping that extraction went smoothly yet prepared to enter if there was trouble.
As before, Sting had no difficulty in sneaking in to the house. He was able to quickly locate the man MidKnight Star called the butler, asleep in his room. A quick superstrength love-tap, and the man was sleeping even more soundly. A few moments later, Sting was racing back to MidKnight Star with the man on his shoulder.
Sting, MidKnight and Starlad took the butler slightly deeper in the woods, out of earshot, and, as he directed MidKnight to hold the butler, made his best attempt at awaking him.
Once he awoke, and was sure that he had the Butler's attention, Aftershock spoke. "I want Ripper. Where is he? Don't deny he hasn't been here, I've seen evidence of him and I know better."
The man struggled for a moment, then slumped. "You, you are the one claiming to be Aftershock. The master will deal with you, I am certain. He will deal with you in his own good time. He will return someday for his servants and then you will suffer the fate of all who dare oppose him."
Star Lad tensed, what in the world was going on around him. This Ripper fiend, masters and servants, was all this worth a story? He felt the warmth of the stone flow over him in the chilly night air and realized that this was where he was meant to be. The caped hero didn't like the fact that they had tipped their hand by letting the Ripper know about them, but this definitely classified as desperate measures. He stood back, silently. Ripper had this guy under some kind of control, and leaning on him wasn't going to do it, he thought.
"Perhaps 'the Master' might not have servants to return to. Or perhaps he's in there right now, hiding from me. He does seem to do his best work when his opponent's back is turned," Aftershock said.
"The Master does not fear you! When he returns you will be destroyed."
Sting laughed loudly. "Give me one reason why he would return? Surely there are poor defenseless boy scouts at places other than here that he can consume for his pleasure. Even in Russia. Please try to understand...he's done with you. He's used you for what he's needed and he's moved on...why else do you think it's been so long since his return?"
The man's eyes narrowed, "You do not know as much as you pretend. It has not been long since he left, and he will return ... for you!"
"Maybe not," Sting said, "but thanks to you, I know more than I did. Good show." And with that, another love tap found the manservant unconscious again.
Sting's frustration was very visible on his face. "My gut instinct is to take out everyone in that mansion and raze it to the ground...but I guess that wouldn't be very heroic, huh?
"So do we still see the need for a raid, guys?"
"Soon can be now, tomorrow, or never." offered Star Lad. "If the help expects him to return, then the head honcho ought to know more." He pointed off toward the estate, "Rousting old men out of their slumber isn't exactly my thing, but I'm not sure we have any other choice."
"I wonder if there even is an "old man" present in there." Sting said. "However, it's worth a chat. Do we want to nab him the same way we nabbed Jeeves here or is the frontal approach better?"
Star Lad deferred to his partner. Even though they were in England, he was the one with training in the law. Sure, he had done a little B&E when on a story but that wasn't to kidnap someone and there was always some palm to grease so they'd look the other way. Here, things were different and everything was for keeps.
MidKnight thought for a moment. "Everyone who's important knows that this Ripper guy is involved. However, proof is a bit harder to come by, and a full-out raid could garner some authority attention that at best might be the proverbial 'sticky wicket' for your pal at the Round Table to sort out." he said. "Might be best to keep this under the Q.T., as it were. However, I tend to have the same hunch as St...Aftershock in that his "master" and the old guy Jeeves was referring to could be one and the same."
"That's what I was thinking." Sting said. "Still, wouldn't hurt to have one more look around. It's not as if we're in a position to do anything better. Keep an eye on him, please." Aftershock said as he prepared to go back inside the mansion to look for the owner and for any sign of where Ripper was at the moment and when he would be back.
Aftershock shrunk and sped off, hoping for the best. MidKnight turned to his partner and said "Heaven help me, but I think I'd rather be in a pub listening to your theory on Switzerland being the next nuclear world power."
Star Lad bent down to check on the butler's breathing. "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other," he whispered. Rising to his feet, "I doubt MacGrath is in there, but I bet he will return soon and we'll meet Ripper."
The second raid went as smoothly as the first, although Sting opted to merely muzzle the old man gently with a hand rather than KO him, since he seemed fragile. On the way back to his partners, he noticed that the old man was very pale and cool. For lack of a better phrase, the fire of his life seemed to be burning low.
Sting set his burden down gently and motioned to his partners to stand back... he appeared to be no physical threat. "Sir, I apologize for bringing you outside in your condition," Aftershock said, "but this is a most desperate time for us. Do you know who I am, and why I am here?"
Surprised, Star Lad looked at the old man. "Is he OK? should we take him to a hospital?" he asked sympathetically.
Before the old man could speak, Star Lad's words snapped Sting to his senses. "You're right, once they treat him we can always talk to him then. Lets..."
The man's eyes had trouble focussing, "Who's there, who is it?"
"My name is Aftershock, sir." Sting replied, "I'm a member of the Peacekeepers. Are you alright, sir? Do you require medical attention?"
"Peacekeepers? I thought he'd killed you all by now," said the man. "Medical attention? No. I'll recover if that damnable thing doesn't kill me."
"He thought I was dead. I got better, and so will you." Sting said. "But I need to find that damnable thing so it doesn't hurt anyone else. Do you know where he is right now?"
"I'm a fool," the old man started to cry. "I thought it was the key to eternity, but then ... the horror. He won't rest till all of you are dead, all those responsible, he said."
"Responsible for what?" Sting said. "Why is he targeting the Peacekeepers?"
"Who can say? I didn't realize it then, but he's mad, quite mad. He blames you all for everything wrong in his life."
"Sounds like a crybaby to me," Star Lad muttered under his breath.
Sting realized that in the cold they risked this gentleman's condition worsening. "Sir, do we have your permission to take you from here to a medical facility? At the very least, you should be checked over. We can talk more then...but if you're willing, you could be critical to bringing this monster to justice. Shall we go?"
Sting dialed up Castle Perilous on his communicator. "Better keep an eye on the butler for now." Sting told his partners. "We don't want him waking up and alerting everyone."
One of the squires answered the phone as always. "Please connect me with Dux. He should be expecting my call." The connection was made.
"We've rescued a prisoner of Ripper's. This is his place, but he's not here right now. We also have Ripper's butler, who calls himself one of Ripper's 'servants'. The prisoner is safe with us but he's been through a lot. You're more versed, honestly, in the letter of the law than I. Should we wait here for authorities and medical attention to arrive or should we bring these two to you? I'm fairly certain from talking to him that with the captive's testimony a search warrant can be issued and arrests made."
"You don't need a warrant," said the man. "It's my home after all."
Star Lad stepped up, "Sir, there is a madman by your own admission loose. He must be stopped, and he, " jerking a thumb at the slumbering butler, " seems to think the Ripper will return soon. Is that wishful thinking or is there some reason or need to expect him back here at your home?"
"I don't know. I don't know," the man shook his head. "I took them in, but then things became ... too dark and I was made a prisoner in my own home, a source of sustenance ... I know he is gone since he has not ... fed on me."
With a soft voice, Star Lad compassionately questioned the man. "You are a brave man, a hero in the face of adversity. What I'm about to ask you is very important." He paused, trying to focus the man's attention on his words. "When was the last time he fed on you?"
"A few days, a week? Time blurs for me, in the dark, alone ..."
"And before that? I know it seems like a lifetime ago, but only you can help us. Focus." Star Lad hoped that the brave man could muster a clear memory. If that was around a week then perhaps the feeding cycle dictated that Ripper would return soon for sustenance. Sucking up lifeforce on just anyone would cause quite a commotion, and he appeared to be the type who didn't want too much attention. Finding a weak pair like these two could keep him powered in relative secrecy.
While Star Lad continued the questioning, Sting spoke to Brittanicus. "We have the owner's permission to raid the place, so we do need authorities and possibly an ambulance out here. Mr. MacGrath has been through a lot, and we'd like to get him to safety as quickly as possible."
"Dispatched," said Dux. "I'm on my way, too."
MacGrath, meanwhile, was wandering in and out of coherency. "Often, he fed often. So weak ..."
Star Lad looked to his partner. "I think we're losing him. He's given us all the info he has, either we wait for Ripper to return or, " he trailed off while looking toward the estate. "We go in and see if there are any leads in there, we have permission."
"Authorities and medical personnel are on their way, along with Dux." Sting said. "Someone needs to stay here to keep an eye on both of our team members. Now, if the two of you really feel time is of the essence...well, I'm your employer, not your lord and master, you know." Sting gave a slight smile to Starlad.
MidKnight was itching for some action, but he also knew the whole fools rush in scenario. "Your call, partner." he said.
Gently the man powered by the cosmos, lowered the slumbering man to a more comfortable position. "Let's go," he said while levitating.
"OK." MidKnight said. He then turned to Sting. "If we run into trouble, I think you'll hear it."
"Right." Sting said. "I'll wait here with these two for Dux and the authorities." Sting then waved both men together and spoke in a soft whisper. "I'm not 100% convinced that Ripper is elsewhere. He might be in there in another guise. He might even be one of these two, if I remember my Robert Louis Stevenson mythos correctly. It's unlikely, but it's there. Be careful, both of you."
Star Lad made his way to the house with MidKnight talking incessantly about the paranormal, torpor, vampires, and something about the ruling family of Zambia. Thankfully they were at the front door, and he concluded "Sting may be right, stay alert."
After all their preparations, the raid was an anticlimax. MidKnight and Star Lad rousted confused and sleepy inhabitants of the mansion and by the time Dux had arrived to give a hand, they were herding some twenty "cultists" down toward the rendezvous area. The cultists varied in age and were more or less evenly distributed between the genders. Many had roundly cursed MidKnight Star assuring them that "they would suffer when the Master returned."
The only touchy moment came when some of them saw MacGrath and attempted to attack him, crying "Traitor" and "Betrayer" and one poor mixed up woman who cried "Judas."
It finally sunk in to Sting exactly what he was dealing with here. This was no random monster who simply preyed on the living, he had set up his own religion of sorts, with thralls who would provide him with all the sustenance he could ever need or want. He wondered if there were any other areas of the world where a pocket of this apparent cult were alive.
"Well," Sting said, "if this doesn't get Ripper's attention, I don't know what will. These poor people."
One woman, less far gone than the others, recognized Sting from the press conference. "Aftershock! One of the original tormentors!" she cried. The name moved among the crowd in a whisper. "The Master will send his angel of death for you. Such pain will be yours!" She cackled madly.
Sting just looked away and said to Starlad "You guys wondered what you were getting in to? I'm wondering the same thing myself right now."
StarLad grew more and more impatient at the madness of everything and snapped back at the rowdy woman. "The next time you see your 'Master,' tell the coward to bring it on!"
Sting heard this and decided to plant a mental seed. "It's not worth our time, my friend," Sting yelled so she could hear. "Her 'Master' is only good when he strikes from behind like the whipped dog he his. He ran from the Protectors 8 years ago and he's running now. If her 'master' truly cares for his flock, he will come for them, and he will find us waiting. We'll see how mighty he is when he faces someone other than children and old men!"
"His dark angel will destroy you all," the woman said smugly, then refused to speak further.
Sting turned to Dux. "What happens now to these people?"
"Well, depending on what Mr. MacGrath says and what we find in there, we might be able to get anything from trespassing to kidnapping to accessory to murder, if what you say about the scout troop is true and we can prove it," said Dux.
Sting smiled. "Now all we need is the suspect. I assume that this will make at least the british news, perhaps CNN and other such outlets? I want Ripper to see his 'people' in captivity and see what, if anything, he's willing to do. It's possible he may very well hide until things blow over a bit. I hope his rage and thirst for vengeance overrides that, though."
Sting sped away for a moment to enter the house, and returned with the picture in the center...the one with the Peacekeepers and the gentleman in the center...their liason. Major Jack Richards."
"I just keep wondering where this 'tormentor' thing is coming from. We faced him once." Sting said
"If he's as insane as you say, once might be enough," said Dux.
StarLad walked over to MidKnight's side, "Think we should guard McGrath. I'm afraid we've signed his death warrant. This Ripper is a vengeance freak and he's an easy target for a crazed coward."
"We've signed nothing." Sting said. "Dux, would the medical facilities at the castle be sufficient for Mr. McGrath? I can't think of a more secure place, and even if Ripper does come for him there, I can't think of a better place to have him."
Sting looked at Star Lad. "We can guard him more easily there. Trust me, I want no more deaths at this lunatic's hands."
"I think we can put him up for a few days at least," said Dux. Dux continued, "Do you want to head back to the Castle? The Squire CSI team is here to go over the mansion and see what they can find."
"Yeah, I'm ready for some Earl Grey. MidKnight, StarLad, how about you guys?"
MidKnight looked at the castle. "If you guys got it covered, then yeah, lets head back with Mr. McGrath. I'm sure he could use a good meal and some rest."
MacGrath was installed into the infirmary at the Castle, and a late snack was rustled up for the heroes. They batted ideas and speculations around for a few hours and were just considering turning in when the initial report from the Squire CSI and Interrogation Team arrived.
A few points in the report stood out. The inhabitants were some kind of weird vampire cultists who seemed to believe that "The Master" would be able to grant them eternal life. MacGrath had apparently founded and organized the cult, but then got cold feet as the Ripper's homicidal nature became more obvious. The orgy of death at the scout camp had been presented to the cultists as a great feeding prior to some great work that would require a lot of energy.
The point that was most interesting to the heroes was that the Ripper was not alone. Reports were confused, but there was at least one and possibly two companions that travelled with him. The confusion seemed to stem from the fact that there was a room near the Ripper for the companion but also a locked room in the basement (clearly the one Sting had found), but they may have contained the same person, only at different times. Adding to the confusion, some of the cultists reported that the companion had left alone the day after Big Ben's death, while others reported that he left with "The Master" only a few days ago.
It hit Sting like a ton of bricks, and a cold shiver went across him. "Duplication." Sting had said. "Legionnaire's primary power was duplication." Sting's mind raced. "One of two immediate possibilities exist...we buried the actual Legionnaire and Ripper's aides are two clones...or, even more chilling, we buried a clone and Legionnaire is under Ripper's thrall."
"Something doesn't jive about this." MidKnight interjected. Where would one guy go that the other didn't? You said something about Russia?"
"Yes, that's where the last surviving member was last seen...but I don't think that's where they went." Sting replied. Sting asked one of the Squires to uncover a recent history and current whereabouts of the soldier in that picture with the Peacekeepers.
"OK, assuming that your theory is true." MidKnight continued, "I think it might be likelier that this Legionnaire cat is still alive. You said something about a locked metal room...now, stop me if I've read too much science fiction, but isn't it feasable that that room might have been where the *REAL* Legionnaire was kept...as a prisoner...and that clone thingy was being used as Ripper's assistant?"
"A prisoner, or an accomplice?" StarLad asked.
Midknight continued to speak, probably more in one shot than Sting had heard from him the entire trip. "OK, assuming he left to continue his mission...and assumptions are all we got right now...if he finally ran through the Protectors, and he's trying to exact full vengeance...wouldn't it make sense for him to go after..."
"Known family." Sting said as he completed the sentence. A wave of fear washed over him as Lorelei came to his mind, but not only could Ripper not be aware of her...could he?...she was well protected at the Eagle's Nest. Then it hit him. "Legionnaire's wife...Jeanne Rimaud."
MidKnight then followed up. "What are the odds that Ripper took a clone with him to go after her...and the original article managed to escape with the thralls thinking he was a clone...to stop him?"
"We do have a body of Legionnaire, right?" StarLad asked. "Or are Ripper and Legionnaire the same person?" He didn't like making the accusation among those who counted him as an ally, but if Ripper could somehow absorb the powers of whoever he siphoned then it would be nice to know if they could expect a foe wielding the might of Big Ben.
"I was there when they buried his body." Sting said. "But we can't discount any of this. In any event, I think it's fair that Ms. Rimaud be warned. Dux, she probably won't take a call from me at this point, but she may speak to you, or to the French authorities. She should know that she may be one of Ripper's targets."
"I'll see she gets word," said Dux.
"Thank you." Sting said. "OK, at this point, what are our options...aside from waiting until he returns?"
Feeling like a fish out of water, StarLad shrugged. "I doubt we'll get anything on safehouses from his followers. They didn't seem cooperative."
"They're addicted to him." MidKnight said. "And their behavior matches that of addicts. They're programmed to believe and follow only him. All we'd need to find is some kool-aid and we've got the perfect recipe for a cult of personality."
Sting was frustrated, but he knew that unless they could figure out what Ripper's flight path was, they were basically on the defensive. "Dux, you've been at this longer than we have. Is there anything else we *can* do?"
"I don't know. What's his pyschology? Where is he going to jump next?" said the leader of the Round Table. "Can you guess where he's going and cut him off?"
"He may be crazy, but he isn't stupid," offered StarLad. "He knew what you had planned was a trap Sting, his kind chooses where, when, and how they strike. That is what makes him dangerous. Are there any more Peacekeepers alive?"
"No." Sting said. "Baby Yaga may be, but her whereabouts have been unknown for years and I doubt that Ripper has the resources to find her. That leaves Major Jack Richard, the only person in the picture...other than Aftershock, of course...still alive. If he's hunting down the people in that picture, you would have to think he would be the most logical next target." Sting was thorougly impressed at Star Lad's ability to stay impassive throughout this, although having no emotional ties to the situation certainly helped.
"The states are several hours behind us timewise, Dux. If Richards is a target, Ripper has a couple of days head start and commercial would be too slow. As much as I hate heading back to the states on no sleep, I'm afraid if we wait until morning we may be too late. Perhaps we should give him a call now...it wouldn't be that late over in the states...and unless he's changed it, I think I know how to get a hold of him outside the office. First, though, I need to make one other contact."
Sting dialed PC on his personal line to her. Even overseas, the line rung clear. "Protectors Central, PC online." came the voice on the other end.
"PC, this is Sting." Sting said.
The voice on the other line sounded like she was going to say something, but a few seconds passed before the voice went on. "Are you secure, Sting?"
"Not totally, so keep it brief and straightforward, PC." Sting said, putting emphasis on her code name so she would get the hint to keep it business. "I need to know two things. First, the current location, whearabouts and recent assignments of Major Jack Richards, the former liason to the Peacekeepers. Dig if you need to , I especially need a way to contact him right now. Also, I need to know if anything out of the ordinary occurred in New York City today...paranormal reports, anything odd. This includes any death reports that may be attributed to hypothermia or hypothermia symptoms."
"Copy." PC said, and Sting heard the long string of clacking keyboard sounds on the other end.
As the heroes waited for an answer StarLad started a conversation with Dux. "Were you familiar with this Legionnaire?"
"Not really, we worked different areas," said Dux. "The Peacekeepers were sort of international troubleshooters, the Round Table was and is a UK concern."
"Sting, I've got your readout," said PC. "Jack Richards, now Lt.-Colonel. Listed as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force, but interestingly stationed in New York with no active command. Sounds like he might still be working covertly. Here's a contact number," she rattled it off. "I can connect you if you want. Nothing too unusual showing up in the NYC area, although 'unusual' is a real relative term in the City, if you know what I mean."
"Noted." Sting said. "Go ahead and patch me through direct. Hopefully he won't be too upset to hear from a 'long lost' friend."
There were some buzzes and clicks, then a couple of rings, then, "Richards."
"Jack, I'm sorry to call you like this, this is Aftershock. Not sure if you saw the news reports, but we've got two dead former Peacekeepers and their killer may be after you next."
"Is this some kind of sick joke? Aftershock was a good friend and he's been dead for years. How did you get this number?" said Richards.
"I know we're good friends, Jack. I faked my death and never came back because I was never ready to until I saw two good friends murdered, and you and I both know that that traitorous witch Yaga wouldn't have come back." Sting said, knowing that it wasn't public knowledge that Yaga betrayed the Peacekeepers. "Your life could be in danger, Ripper's hunting the Peacekeepers and you're the last one on his list, as best as I can guess. Ask me what you need to to determine I'm on the level, things I would have taken to the grave with me if I had died."
There was a long silence, then Richards asked a quick series of questions. Sting replied, then there was another silence. "Jesus," said Richards in a shaky voice. "Either we've been so thoroughly compromised we might as well shut down or it is you.
"No compromise, Jack" Sting said. "I promise when this is over we'll sit down and talk, because I'm fading out of the public eye again when this is over. But for now, I need to keep this short.
"So what's this about Ripper?"
Sting gave a quick and dirty rundown about Ripper and his accomplice being some form of Legionnaire, and his murder of Big Ben and presumed murder of Jade Tiger. He also explained that his hideout here was raided but that Ripper and FakeLegionnaire had left town.
"On his dresser," Sting said, "was a picture of you and the Peacekeepers team, with him keeping a running tally of dead Peacekeepers that didn't die in the final conflict. You're the only one left...other than me, and he didn't know about me until yesterday at the earliest. I'm fairly certain he's looking for you...are you somewhere right now where you could be found?"
"I am at the UN building, as usual. If he comes for me, he'll be able to find me."
"OK." Sting said. He didn't want to draw a location in case he was on a covert assignment. "My associates and I will more than likely be in New York as soon as we can. In the meantime, be alert. He killed Ben by sending in his accomplice as Legionnaire, so he's trying to take us out psychologically before doing so physically. He blames the Peacekeepers for ruining his life, and he's playing for keeps. I know you can take care of yourself, but please be careful and on guard.
"When we return, I'll get a hold of you at this number and we'll link up. It was good talking to you again, Jack. When this is over, we'll have a lot of catching up to do.
"If you're who you say you are, you're damn right we will," said Richards before hanging up.
Sting got Jack's number from PC, then said goodbye. "Dux, you have been a wonderful help and comrade throughout all of this, and I feel badly, but I do need to ask one more favor. Would it be possible for the three of us to receive direct transport to New York in the morning through you? I fear commercial airlines might not get us there fast enough."
"We can get you on Concord on short notice, but we don't have direct access to anything supersonic," he turned to a nearby Squire, "I need three tickets on the next plane out. Pull the neccessary permits for short term diplomatic visas. You can get the passport shots from our security cams." He turned back to the Americans, unless you'd rather just arrange it yourself for travel in your secret IDs."
Sting turned to Star Lad and MidKnight. "Your call."
"Don't look at me," MidKnight said, "I don't have a secret ID."
StarLad spoke up, "I can give you the name and passport information to process the tickets."
"Fine," Dux said. "You can give it the Squire - and rest assured we'll keep it under lock and key."
"Same with me, then." Sting said. He didn't think he would be easily recognized on the flight, especially with the beard shaven and his temples darkened.
Soon enough, the tickets were processed and goodbyes were said. "I owe you and the Table much." Sting said. "You ever need backup, you know where to find me."
With that, they returned to their respective hotels for a good nights sleep.
The Sun streamed in it was a bright winters day. "Hmm I love this time of day." Jim thought to himself. "Almost as much as I love the night. both have a cleanness about them, the night is simple. It obscures and covers up. And only that which is important shines out and is seen. And in the morning its a fresh start - things are defined different, a fresh perspective" Jim finished up slopping the floors and carried the equipment back to the cleaning cupboard. He knew he was due to see his Mom this week, but the case had taking more of his time than he thought. "I'll go tonight to the second house, then check in with Mom on my day off." Jim determined to himself.
That night the air was now crisp and cold, from the clear cloudless sky. This didn't bother Flex who had warmed up, by climbing nearby rooftops and leaping from building to building. Soon he was in the country side and at the address of the second house that had been robbed by the mysterious crossbow thief. Flex had brought a flash light with him and slowly and methodically he looked over the estate. His background with other petty thieves, had taught him a thing of two about breaking and entering. So once he got the lay of the site he looked for the obvious points of entry. Then followed those in to the site checking for clues on the way.
This victim had an actual estate, with walls and private guards. The wall was no problem for Flex, though, and he was soon over and on the grounds. His contacts had mentioned that the robber had come in around the back, so he concentrated his search in that area. He found the spot and began to investigate. Some of the crime was easy to recreate. The villian had stood somewhere near here, fired up by that window and used that crossbow bolt to anchor a rope or something and climb up. The bolt had been removed, by the staff, Flex assumed, since his best intelligence was that the police had not even been called in on this robbery.
He leapt up and stuck on the wall to examine the hole, and to his untrained eye it looked like the other one at the other house. Something in a gutter caught his eye, though, and he sent a hand down to fetch it. It looked like the broken end of an arrow, the fletched end. On closer examination, Flex decided that it didn't look broken, since the end didn't appear damaged, rather it looked like a socket or something.
"Hmm this bears further investigation." Flex said to himself as he turned the strange instrument over in his hands. Even in the moonlight and with his untrained eye, Flex could tell that this was not the type of arrow that he'd seen Qurral use. "Nope this is something altogether different." Flex breathed a sign of relief at least he would not be going up against Sherwin and Bolo again. Last time he had faced them Flex and not distinguished himself that well.
"OK Flex, me boy. Home for some sleep then back again for a chat with the owner." Into the night Flex slide away from the house, noticed by no one save an owl, waking for it night hunt.
Several hours later having painstakingly gone over the grounds, Flex thought about what he had found. "Time to turn in." Flex spoke to no one but himself. "And next time we visit we'll have a chat to the owners." Flex looked grim his jaw was set. This case was going to be solved, it was not going to beat him, he determined, as he made his way from the home and into the night.
"Jack? It's Aftershock. We're here." Sting said.
"Fine. Where's here?"
"If we sneezed, you'd hear it." Sting responded. "Otherwise, I'd prefer to come to you because of the situation. Should I meet you at the UN building or somewhere else?"
Sting had a strange feeling about this. Didn't he tell Jack last night that he would be coming to NYC? And with all his years of covert experience, one had to wonder why Jack thought Sting would give away where he was in a dangerous situation such as this.
"If you're Aftershock, you know how to get to my old office. Do it. Twenty minutes," Richards said.
Sting led MidKnight Star to a non-descript building near the UN. Right outside the entrance, he asked MidKnight Star to wait a moment. "They might get trigger happy if I bring two guys they don't know. Once I establish contact and they know it's me, I'll bring you two in. Cool?"
StarLad glanced at his partner, then nodded in the affirmative.
At twenty minutes on the dot, Sting, dressed in his Aftershock uniform, walked calmly into the secret guard station in the building next to the UN. He presented an old, battered Peacekeepers ID, and said, "Gentlemen, I have an appointment with Lieutenant Colonel Richards. He will be expecting me." Sting noted the guards were more heavily armed than he would have expected, and wearing some kind of riot armour or something similar.
"Yes sir," said one, taking the ID. He swiped it through a scanner and returned it. Sting saw the other one had his weapon ready, and was glad that Richards was taking appropriate precautions. The first man glanced at a readout. "The ID checks, sir. Colonel Richards is waiting for you, he says you know the way."
"Thank you, Corporal." Aftershock said. "I have two associates with me that I believe Col. Richards is aware of...I didn't want to alarm you by bringing them in at first but I'd like them there when I meet with the Colonel. Please verify their clearance...you may accompany if you wish."
"Hold, please." The guard stepped back behind a bulletproof shield and lifted a phone.
Outside, StarLad asked his partner, "I hate feeling like we aren't doing anything. Feels like we ought to be pounding the pavement asking questions or circulating a photo, or something."
"We are doing something." MidKnight said. "We're backup. Something about this reeks like a wino on New Year's Eve. We're the X-factor in this...the element of surprise. Don't worry, once we nail this psycho we'll be back in the 'Parts in no time, partner."
"Wishful thinking, " he murmured as he leaned against a nearby wall. StarLad hoped his partner was right and Ripper didn't see the news conference in London so that they remained an unknown commodity, but he feared that the madman had already taken their presence into consideration.
Sting opened the door and beckoned to MidKnight Star who came to join him. In the guard station, a door was open revealing stairs down. Sting knew they led to a reinforced tunnel which led in turn to the sub-basement of the UN. The corporal gestured to the stairs. "You'll be met," he said.
The tunnel was empty except for the lights and the occasional protrustion of a camera or sensor. Sting knew that the obvious monitoring devices were only a small fraction, and the least effective, of the devices actually present in the corridor.
StarLad glanced over to his partner with a 'told you so' look that seemed to confirm every paranoid scheme he had ever espoused.
The door at the far end was open, and the men stepped into a dazzling light. Richard's voice came out of the light. "That's far enough," he said the blinded men. "Either Ripper's after me, in which case you understand my wishing to verify a few things before you get any closer, or this is some kind of hoax, in which case, you've come too far already. We're secure here, so start talking."
"If you want to verify things, then maybe you should talk a little bit first." Aftershock said. "What do you wish to verify? Specs of a certain mission? Security measures in place in the UN at the time? Scirocco's favorite perfume? Once we get that out of the way and I know I'm talking to Jack Richards in the flesh, we can talk about Ripper and his accomplice." Sting gestured to either side of him. "These gentlemen are two up-and-comers I've been working with, MidKnight and Star Lad. And no, I didn't pick the names. They're with me and they're completely legit."
"I've been thinking about that for two days, now, and I don't have any good answers," said Richards. "Ripper stole life force, and in at least one case, powers. Could he steal knowledge? Maybe. Perhaps he ripped the thoughts from my old friend Aftershock, or from Big Ben before he killed him. I'm not sure there's anyway to tell, but if what you've said is even half true, I am sure I don't want to get too close. You wanted to meet, we've met. You wanted to talk, I'm listening."
"OK," Aftershock began. "but consider this. If he ripped the thoughts from me, then he wouldn't have known what happened the day the First World attacked...the fact that White Pride forced me, with his powers, to kill Scirocco, because that happened AFTER he took Tsunami. How that was covered up when I turned up missing and was thought dead. Ben wouldn't have known that because he was toe to toe with Schlachthaus at the time. He wouldn't know the guilt I've lived with for years, and the fear I lived with to ever coming back, until recently. The fact that my powers have changed, Jack, has hastened it even more. I'm not as strong or as vibrationally powered as I used to be...but I'm faster, and have other abilities. But none of that changes the fact that right now I'm talking to the last friend of mine from my life as Aftershock that is still living and breathing. And despite the circumstances, I'm damn glad to see him.
As far as Ripper, I found out it was him investigating Ben's death in England. He had a checklist of targets. He has an accomplice that is in some way connected with Legionnaire in that he's using his costume and his powers to impersonate him in the assaults...there was one witness to Ben's attack that confirms this. There are exactly three people who were Peacekeepers that weren't killed by either Ripper or the World...Baba Yaga, me, and you. I'm here because I think you're his next target and I'm sick of him killing my friends...and my family."
StarLad bristled at the words he heard Sting saying. He knew there was something more to Sting and this clinched it, there was a story here and it was bigger than the Port Alexander Town Scryer. This was his ticket to the big time, and he smiled beneath his mask. What was he thinking? he was here as a confidante, well as an employee actually. But could a doctor refuse to treat someone just because he wore a funny constume? Of course not. And a reporter couldn't not write a story that the public had a right to know; after all, the Peacekeepers were funded by world money as part of the United Nations. They never covered this dilemma in any of his journalism classes, yet this was going to take a lot of thought. In the meantime, there was a job to be done. Then, he'd have some serious considering to do.
"You make a convincing story, except for one thing. If Aftershock survived, what if Ripper got him then? Afterwards. Say your story is true, but before Aftershock got to me, Ripper got to him," Richards said. "Or am I just being too paranoid? Too many 'ifs' ... too many questions."
Richards was cut off by a sound that had haunted Sting for years, the alarm indicating a crisis at the security checkpoint back in the small building, the alarm that announced the attack of the First World all those years ago.
Quickly StarLad looked to his partner, "This is it," he said eager for action.
"Looks like further answers are going to need to wait, Jack. Lets go." Aftershock signaled for his two compatriots to take off. En route, Sting gave quick and whispered directions. "I'm shrinking to insect for the element of surprise, so don't be surprised." he said to Star Lad. With that, Sting shrank to insect just before getting to the corridor leading directly to the doorway.
The heroes headed back the way they came before Richards and his men could react. Behind them they heard Richards mutter, "Godammit. He runs off half-cocked like Aftershock. Follow them, dammit."
The three heroes arrived at the door to the guard station and quickly formulated their plans. Sting slapped the switch to open the door and shrank down to insect size. As soon as the door opened enough, he raced in, followed by Star Lad with MidKnight bringing up the rear.
Sting passed almost beneath the feet of a man who was wearing, he saw with a shock, a tattered version of Legionnaire's uniform. In a flash, he noticed the gaping hole in the wall and the two guards - one dead with a huge wound in his chest that appeared to have been inflicted through the bulletproof glass, the other dead or unconscious in a corner.
Sting rocketed up to his full hieght, shooting a fist toward "Legionnaire's" chin. Somehow, the man seemed to know Sting was there and leaned away from the blow, causing Sting to miss. Sting was shaken, Legionnaire, the real Legionnaire, had possessed the same sort of intuition in combat situations.
MidKnight pushed past Star Lad and raced to check on the fallen guard. He was relieved to find he was merely unconscious.
Meanwhile, Legionnaire twirled his staff around with deceptive ease and jabbed with the spear point at Sting. He missed but continued the motion and slammed the butt toward Sting's side. Sting blocked it out with a forearm and made a grab for it with his other hand. He got a grip just as Legionnaire thrust the spear head back at Star Lad, who wove away from the glittering point.
Star Lad had already begun to glow with the pale blue surge of cosmic energy. Eyeing the man dressed as Legionnaire, Star Lad loosed a cosmic bolt toward him. The bolt was on target, but again displaying his skill, the man leaned back as Star Lad fired and the bolt merely glanced into him.
Star Lad swirled away for a better aim and to end up nearer the hole in the wall. "One way in, no way out," he said taking aim again to guard the exit and firing again.
MidKnight joined in with a blast of coherent light, but again Legionnaire stepped clear.
Legionnaire twisted the pole in Sting's hand and used the leverage he gained to strike at the hero. Sting blocked the haft then grunted in pain as the point tore a gaping wound across his torso.
"Knight," Star Lad called out, "full-court press while I check on replacements." The hovering hero exited through the hole in the wall to look outside for any accomplices.
MidKnight nodded looking for a shot, as Sting got a good grip and yanked. Legionnaire's weapon came free, and Sting backed up quickly to the hole in the wall, giving MidKnight the opening he needed. Coherent light flashed and punched another small hole in the wall behind Legionnaire.
Outside, Star Lad looked around. A small crowd had gathered, as New Yorkers will do, but then one man caught his eye. Thin and pale, the man was watching the proceedings avidly. He saw Star Lad watching him, and smiled a smile as evil as anything Star Lad had ever seen. He raised his arm, and as Star Lad watched, gently, almost lovingly, touched a woman near him in the crowd, who fainted to the ground.
Star Lad whispered 'Ripper' to himself as he assessed the situation and rocketed toward the grim figure. Slicing through the air, the cosmic induced hero lashed out with a martial arts kick sequence. Landing one or two shots that his target more or less ignored.
"You wanna dance, abomination? Lets dance," Sting said bending the point of the spear inward before breaking it in two and lightly dumping it outside the hole. While his opponent looked on, MidKnight moved inward and attempted a punch, all the while using his athletic ability to bob and weave attacks, trying to buy time to recharge his batteries a bit. Sting zipped in next to him.
"Betrayers!" shrieked Legionnaire, and the voice sounded right to Sting. Older, more ragged, but it sounded like his old comrade. "You shall all suffer," continued the man rolling forward and lashing out with a series of blows. One connected solidly, rocking Sting back.
Outside, the pale man weathered the Cosmic Storm, then lashed out with a hand, cackling, "So be it! You will join the others and hasten the day!" He grabbed Star Lad who screamed as he felt his very life force pulled from him. Star Lad loosed a blast of Cosmic energy at the creature stealing his life. Ripper gasped and released his grip.
"Begone, your soul is not worthy to join the others," screamed Ripper, punching out at Star Lad.
Star Lad recoiled from the touch attack of Ripper, and attempted to block his punches. "Is that all you got?" he taunted. "I expected more from a 'Master'," he said sarcastically. "Prepare for pain, old man." A spinning fist set up the nerve strike the leg that had Ripper limping.
"You have yet to experience the true meaning of pain," said Ripper grabbing again for Star Lad.
Legionnaire continued to whirl, feet and fists flashing. "Vous m'avez abandonne! Maintenant, vous soufrirez comme j'ai soufri! Richards!" The name was a shriek. "Richards, you are the last. Apres vous, c'est fini! Et vous, Aftershock est deja mourri! Maintenant, vous lui joindrez." Legionnaire punctuated his last comment with a boot to the gut that knocked Sting back a few feet and took his wind away.
MidKnight was avoided the flurry of blows directed his way with a combination of skill and luck. He was looking for an opening or a chance to get a shot off.
Then Sting cut loose with a sting. Legionnaire shifted at the last moment, but still took the brunt of the blast. That gave MidKnight the opening he needed and his blast of coherent light caught Legionnaire flat-footed ripping his mask completely off.
Sting looked in shock on the face of his old comrade beneath his mask. He was transfixed. No thrall, no reanimated corpse...that looked to all the world like his long dead comrade. Then as he caught his breath, he wondered where Star Lad was.
"Um, Mr. Peacekeeper, a little help here." MidKnight said as he tries to connect with Legionnaire using his 'fistuses', as he used to call em back in the 'Parts. A tortured expression on his face, Legionnaire twisted and turned depriving the blows of much of their force. Sting saw new lines on the face, lines of pain, lines of age.
Star Lad slipped away from Ripper and lashed out with a kick to the midsection and follow-up to the head. "Big words from a coward who preys on boy scouts and old men."
"They were fodder for my soul, as shall you be," said Ripper raking his hand again toward Star Lad.
The plucky young hero blocked him twice, but then Ripper got hold and again he felt his life flowing out of him.
"I will eat your soul!" cried the energy vampire. "Your soul will quiet the voices." He pulled the young hero to him. Star Lad screamed again, then kicked loose and floated into the air.
Sting meanwhile was struck motionless by the sight of his old comrade, leaving MidKnight alone against Legionnaire. MidKnight punched out, connecting with Legionnaire and then fired a blast of energy. The impact from the punch had rocked Legionnaire back and he rolled with the motion so the light blast went just over his head. MidKnight fired again and Legionnaire kept rolling. He was rapidly running out of places to shuck and jive.
Sting shook his head and realized Star Lad had been missing too long. He zipped over to the hole and saw Sar Lad just rising free from Ripper's grasp. He kept moving toward the fray.
Sting and Star Lad felt the strange energy drop that seemed to affect anyone who came too close to Ripper. "Ah, Aftershock," oozed Ripper. "I saw your broadcast. Come to join Tsunami in my soul, have you?" He ignored the airborne Star Lad to charge at Sting fingers extended.
Sting leaned clear or the reaching fingers, he knew too well what they could do.
Star Lad took advantage of the distraction and fired a full power shot at Ripper's back. It smashed in pushing Ripper off balance, and Sting stepped in with a sunday punch. Ripper tried desperately to dodge but Sting's punch, filled with the anger and pain of a decade slammed home. Ripper was lifted off the ground and flew all the way across the street, slammed into the wall of the UN about six feet up, and slid to the ground, where he lay still.
Sting ran to the fallen body, laid one more shot across the jaw to be sure, and said. "No, actually, I came to free him from yours, murderer."
Star Lad landed near the fallen lady that Ripper had drained and checked her for signs of life. He was relieved to note that she was alive, if barely.
Inside, MidKnight had Legionnaire on the run. He landed a few punches.
Then Legionnaire saw an opening, planted and fired a haymaker at MidKnight. MidKnight rolled clear of some of the impact, and tried to kick back as he twisted. The blow skated across Legionnaire's ribs.
Noting that Star Lad had the civilian in hand, he then ran back in to assist MidKnight as Star Lad scooped the woman up and carried her into a nearby shop shouting for someone to call an ambulance.
The woman in the shop grabbed a phone and started dialing, so Star Lad headed back outside. Seeing Ripper down and unattended, he posted himself guard over the fallen villian.
Star Lad cautioned the growing crowd to stay away, even take a few steps toward some more bold New Yorkers.
Sting quickly located his target and blurred into action, a headlong charge. Legionnaire spun gracefully out of the way, right into a pair of punches from MidKnight. Turning to MidKnight he was blindsided by Sting, whose punch slammed him into the wall.
Just as Sting was finishing up with Legionnaire, Richards and the UN troops started to come out of the tunnel, weapons at the ready.
Aftershock saw Legionnaire slump to the ground, almost not noticing the guards coming out. "Keep an eye on him, MidKnight, I need to check on Ripper and your partner. Oh, excellent work," Aftershock said as he sped out to rendevous with Star Lad, standing over the fallen Ripper.
"Good thought." Aftershock told the hero. "The young woman, is she OK?"
"Yeah, an ambulance is on its way." Star Lad looked down at Ripper, "Is he dead?"
"Lets get him inside before he wakes up again...I'm sure Jack will LOVE to get a good look at this...thing."
They collected the fallen Ripper and proceeded inside with the guards. Richards was crouched near the fallen Legionnaire.
"This one," Sting said, throwing Ripper to the ground, "is an Alpha class threat that has an area leech effect, meaning you can't get near him when conscious without him draining your energy. Therefore, unless the UN has cells that can dampen that, your best bet is to keep him unconscious."
Richards looked up at Sting, obviously shaken. "Three ghosts in one day is too damn many." He stood, again an officer in command of the situation, "That's Ripper, huh. Williams, get him into containment, code Coma. Get some Corpsmen up here to deal with our wounded. Get Legionnaire into the infirmary. What are we dealing with there, Aftershock?"
"I wish I could say for sure." Aftershock said. "He moves like Rimaud, he wields a staff like Rimaud, but he wasn't anywhere approaching this class of strength and resiliency when we worked with him Jack. Furthermore, if this is Rimaud, he never used his duplication ability, something I would think would have given him a distinct advantage in combat. This *could* mean that he's anything from a fake to a clone...but then again, I've gone through some changes myself."
Aftershock stared at the visage of a friend long since gone and winced. "Lets secure him and wait for him to wake and find out if being out of Ripper's influence affects his mind any."
Star Lad asked aloud, "If Legionnaire could duplicate himself, then how can we test this guy to see if he is a replicant? Seems to me that if he was the original, then he'd have split up to give us fits."
"It gives me a headache just thinking about it. Aftershock, you and your team come with me," said Richards heading off back down the corridor and simply expecting to be followed.
Back in his office, he sat down, waited for the others to sit, and said, "Now, debrief me. Thoroughly."
Sting filled Richards in on the whole story, carefully omitting his own secret ID, and guessing that Ripper had lived at the mansion in England ever since killing Tsunami. He pointed out that although he had no hard evidence linking Ripper to Jade Tiger's death, he was certain the energy vampire was involved.
"I came back to take care of this one piece of business," he concluded, "but have every intention of returning to anonymity now that Ripper has been brought to justice."
Richards nodded as Sting wound down. "I can hardly blame you for wanting to fade back out, although we could certainly use you here ... no? Allright. It does seem like there was something personal between you and Ripper." He looked at Sting speculatively, then shook his head. "In any case, you're active now down in Port Alexander, I see. That's good. I'm glad there's some muscle by the PNDF."
He was interrupted by an orderly who came in with two baskets. "These are the effects we found on Ripper and Legionnaire," she said. "Not much on Legionnaire, but this is interesting." She offered the basket to Richards.
Richards looked inside, then looked up at the orderly. "Scramble a covert team, Linda."
"Already done, sir," said Captain Linda, whose last name was O'Keefe if her uniform was to be believed.
Richards smiled at her, "Good." Turning to Sting and MidKnight Star he asked, "Care to come with me to the Warwick Hotel?" He reached into the basket and produced a room key with the Warwick logo on it.
Star Lad looked to his partner, with a hint of concern. Would this ordeal ever end? or was there another surprise waiting at the Warwick Hotel that would toss them into yet another maelstrom? He sighed and said, "Lead on."
Aftershock concurred. "Lets put this to bed, I think all three of us are ready to head home."
The heroes and the UN Team descended on the hotel. Working quickly, they isolated the floor and then the room. Then the heroes burst through the door followed by Richards and two of his men.
They were brought up short in horror. Handcuffed to the bed was a man, Legionnaire it seemed, but a Legionnaire so horribly damaged as to be hardly recognizable. Not only was he pale with the usual pallor of Ripper's victims, but there were signs of system torture immediately visible on his body, some of the wounds and injuries looking old, years old perhaps.
"My God," Richards managed.
Star Lad recoiled in shock at the shell of a man. "Ambulance," he said before screaming the word down the hallway to one of the insertion team members with a radio.
Aftershock immediately went over and checked his vital signs. He decided to take a chance when he spoke. "Rimaud? It's Shock. You with us? You OK?"
There was a flicker of something, then it was gone. The man was nearly comatose. The medical support portion of the covert team pushed in and took over. "MedEvac has been called for."
The heroes watched as the medical team worked on the emaciated form of someone who also looked like Legionnaire. Sting's mind raced. Ripper had somehow used this shell to create the Legionnaire that Sting had fought...but how? And if this was the one true Legionnaire, who did they bury. A found replicant, perhaps? As the MedEvac team finally arrived, the enormity of everything that had happened the past week finally came down on Sting, and tears began to flow.
He found that man had a bad reputation, beat his girls. The Nation had noticed that he had been running fewer and fewer girls before he was killed. Max tried to find them.
It proved difficult. It became clear immediately that they were not on the street anymore. Eventually, though, someone in the Nation turned up what looked like a home address for a girl who used the name Simone. She was not walking the streets and appeared to be doing fairly well for herself.
The Beggar King went to her neighborhood to check out her new digs. From streetwalker to suburbanite, Max wondered if she was a graduate of Wanderer's shelter. Not wanting to take the time to research that, he approached the front door and knocked.
The door opened, on a chain, a moment later and Max saw a woman of around thirty, attractive, but with a certain hardness around the eyes that his practiced eye recognized as the experience that only a few lessons in the school of hard knocks can give. "Yes, what is it?" she asked.
"Madam, do you recognize me?" Max said with a slight bow. "Do you know who I am?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Wait a minute, you're one of the Protectors, right? Beggar Knight, or something like that."
"I work with them on occasion, yes. Some call me Beggar King. Most know me as Duke Maximillian Immergrun. You may call me Max." With the introduction out of the way, "I would like to ask you a few questions about a past associate. I'm afraid the nature of the questions are unpleasant, but it is important to get the answers. I promise to neither waste your time or belabor any points. Do you have someplace out of the public eye we can speak?"
"I like this just fine," she said suspiciously.
"Then I'll try to not draw any more undue attention from your neighbors," Max said. "I've come to ask you about the man you worked for once. I believe his nom de plume was LaDannon 'G-Daddy' Jones. I already know what sort of scum bag he was. I'm curious if you know of any enemies he might have made."
The woman's face grew hard. "G-Daddy was scum, and I'm glad he was dead. He won't come sniffing around me anymore."
"That's not a surprising response. I've heard from my people how he treated his girls. But I'm trying to find the killer before he decides to change targets from pimps to working girls or homeless." Max gave his statement a moment to sink in. "Now you said he was sniffin' 'round. How long ago was that?"
"He wasn't sniffing around. I just ... don't want him to and now he won't."
"That's fair enough. How long ago did you leave him?"
"It's none of you damn business, but a couple of months ago."
"He lost a lot of his stable about then. I know how notorious pimps are for hanging onto their girls. So, how did it happen so many slipped away at the same time?"
"He was jerk, so we left."
"Did some of the other girls go to other pimps? Or did you all go the Wander-No-More route?"
"Uh," the woman looked flustered momentarily, Max thought, but recovered smoothly, "We all went the Wander-No-More route."
"Good on you," Max responded. "And you've done well, it seems. Aside from his girls, who would want him off the streets that bad?"
"Anyone with any sense. Look, not that this hasn't been great, but, 'bye." She made as if to close the door.
Max put his hand up to stop the door. "Has it occurred to you that the killer might go after G-Daddy's girls next?"
"Mind your own business!" she exploded, and slammed the door.
Max phased his face through the door. "I will remember that if he decides to come for you, Madame." Resolidifying himself on the outside of the door, he muttered to himself. "I really hate when people think a closed door should stop me."
The woman's behavior was amazingly suspicious. Max especially wondered about how she had come so far in such a short time. He had some more investigating to do. Making note of the plate number on the back of the car, he drifted toward a pay phone. His first call was to his friend who worked inside the Wander-No-More House. He wanted to know if his newest friend was really a recent graduate. His second was to PC.
"Ah, the great and powerful voice of the Protectors. I have another request for information. What can you tell me about..." Max coughed up the woman's name, street address and plate number. "She seemed a little dodgy when I was gently questioning her about a past acquaintance. I'm curious if she's on the level or if her reaction was from having something to hide."
"Hold on, Max," said PC. "Searching. No problems with the car. Looks like a new purchase of a used car. Hmm. Cash for the car, no loan. Registered to Marilyn Anderson. Townhouse is a rental. Unlisted phone number. No loan application so no information there. If you can find the lease, that might give you some information about her employment situation." She rattled off the name and address of the management company. "How's that?"
"You're a darling," he replied. "Tell Defender that you deserve a raise."
When Max got home the information from the Wander-No-More House was back. They had no records of anyone named Simone and no good description. Max called back and gave them name Marilyn Anderson but drew another blank.
Max sat in his study thinking about the situation. He had hoped for something a little more 'interesting' than a pimp-turf war. But all circumstantial evidence pointed toward that. Deaths on the street over such things were uncommon, but this particular killing was much more cold blooded than the run-of-the-mill hustler.
Of course, he could be jumping to conclusions. Since Simone's house was in the suburbs, his normal modes of surveillance would be out of the question. He was going to have to hit the streets again. He knew exactly where he would be stopping first.
Mama T's Chicken Shack was open twenty-four hours a day and was the typical hang out of the street's "night shift." Max knew the place too well. He had been forced to do interventions, rescues, bouncer duty, and occasionally ate a meal there. Mama T made the best spicy fried chicken North of the Mason-Dixon. However, this late night eatery was a rough place for his people to tread. The street workers felt themselves above the homeless and took great joy in lording it.
Max was an exception. Even before the accident, people gave the Beggar King a wide berth. Tonight he didn't want that privilege. He needed to wade into the shallow end of the pool and get his feet wet. Upon walking into the Chicken Shack, he saw a particularly good denizen of the shallow end.
Moondog had started out on the PA street scene as a petty enforcer for whoever had the cash and will to turn him loose. He made one mistake too many and struck out freelance against a particularly nasty piece of work from the Italian side of the street. The encounter had left Moondog with a permanent limb and a cower reflex at the sound of a bad Italian accent. Since then, Moondog found himself more prosperous work with people he could more easily intimidate. He had a small stable of walkers who were usually just fresh enough to the street to not be strung out on anything too nasty.
Several of the "workers" greeted Max with the usual cat calls and practiced leers. The counter staff smiled and stood back, knowing something was about to happen that would be story fodder for shift change. Moondog watched Max walk up to the table. Trying to push himself up on his cane, he was totally surprised when Max grabbed him. Without missing a beat, Max ghosted out with Moondog and shoved him through the back wall into the adjacent alley. Junkies and loyal kingdom subjects using the alley for a rest spot scattered as the two figures abruptly appeared out of the wall.
"You can talk to me, Moondog. Or I can send for Tatterknight. He can bend steel bars with his bare hands. What do you think he would do to your bum knee? I wanna know about your old rival, G-Daddy."
"What about him, man. He dead," stammered Moondog.
"Yeah. 'He dead.' What happened to his girls? Are they working for someone else?"
"I don't know, man," said the terrified pimp. "I ain't seen them."
"Moondog, you and I have always been straight because you don't slap your girls around much. I wanna keep it that way. But there's a very bad man out there that did some nasty stuff to G-Dadday and I want him. If you know anything, you'd better spill it." Max pulled him close and locked his gaze. "Any new pimps or wannabes? Any more girls besides G-Dadday's gone from the streets? Any one else missing? Anybody strange hanging round the girls?"
Max trailed his questions off.
"Man, I don't know ... well, look," Moondog got furtive. "Someone's been doing some recruiting, you dig? A girl here, a girl there. Only the best of the best. The girls are off the street. I'm guessing to a house. Most of us let 'em go. I got an envelope left for me with some cash telling me to let her go. I did. G-Daddy, he mean. He hold a grudge. Now he dead. End of story for Moondog. Capice?" The last word told Max all he needed to know about who Moondog thought was responsible.
Max nodded his satisfaction. "You keep your head down, Moondog. There are some bad men walking the street tonight. Gonna be a few less tomorrow night."
The Beggar King picked up the pimp's fallen cane. He did not approve of what the man did, but had learned a long time ago that he could not help everyone. At least Moondog had a modicum of respect for those girls that worked for him. And whether a man like Moondog would ever bow, he was technically one of Max's subjects.
Max took the pimp back into the restaurant to the slack jawed stares of the other late night patrons. On the way out of the place, he stopped long enough to grab his usual late night snack, Spicy Chicken wrapped in a Waffle. "Mama T. Yours is still the best in town."
An hour later, Max was drifting aimlessly around one of Port Alexander's many parks. His mind was on the possibilities Moondog's info outlined. He had to admit the biblical nature of the death did have a certain Italian flair. "An eye for an eye." But all Max's information told him that it was the Russians that were making all the moves lately, not the Italians. Things were getting deeper and deeper. He needed to find the man with the money. That meant finding the lease on the house Simone was using. Or maybe the utility bills would be in someone else's name.
Regardless, Max needed to get into her house and have a poke around.
"So who are you again and what group do you work for."
"My dear sir," Flex said in as best an English accent he could muster. "I work for a prestigious British magazine and we are doing a feature or great American houses and their owners. You may have heard of us we are called Horse and hound." Flex said relishing the opportunity to play someone his father had introduced him to when he was very young. His father had said that he was working in the British embassy her in town. But Flex remembered him as being rather foppish and full of his own importance. Now it was an opportunity to use Jeremy Forbes-Smythe for his own purpose. "Now be a good man and run along to tell the owner of the house that I am here to see them."
With that Flex turned on his heal leaving his back to the man as he stared out upon the entrance to the house and grounds.
Flex could hear noises from the booth as the guard called up to the house. Then, "Mr. Forbes-Smythe? Mrs. Roxbridge will see you." The guard opened the gate. "That way, sir." He indicated a path, "that will take you to the front door."
"Madam, it is a pleasure to meet you." Flex extended his hand and gave a grand show of being impressed by the woman. "The readers of Horse and Hound will be so delighted when they see this article. Your home will stand proud among the many top homes of America. Now doesn't that make you tingle with pride?" Flex hardly waited for an answer before he swept in on the first room they came to.
Taking a look around the room and moving in a confident fashion Flex continued seeking to keep the woman off balance. "Now should our preliminary interview go according to plan then we may well call by again and get some photographs. But..." Upon this last word Flex stopped and turned on the woman to give great emphasis to the catch he was going to deliver, "...that depends on what you can tells us. You know the usual sort of thing the history of the place. How long you've lived here. And any juicy gossip. Our readers always like a good story. What!" Flex moved on picking up items and valuables. Playing the part to the hilt.
"Mr. Forbes-Smythe, do sit down," Mrs. Roxbridge said. Clearly one of the American aristocracy, she was accustomed to being obeyed. "Rosa, bring coffee, or would you rather have tea?" After getting Flex'es drink order, Rose, the maid, departed.
"The house is an interesting one, Mr. Forbes-Smythe. It was built by my grandfather, Jason Roxbridge, in 1886. Since then, of course, it has been extensively remodelled and renovated by Jason, my father William, and by myself. The basic structure of the house remains unaltered, though, and the basic floorplan." Mrs. Roxbridge continued to describe architectural features of the house as Rosa brought the beverages and cake and dissappeared quietly.
"Fascinating, truly fascinating." Flex said seeking to encourage Mrs Roxbridge to play her part to the hilt. Knowing how American people loved other countries history - Mrs Roxbridge must love the status her history brought her. Flex decided to probe deeper. "Now tell me Mrs Roxbridge such extensive remodelling must have been difficult. It certainly looks like you spared not expense." As Flex said this, he smiled very wide encouraging her extravagant choices with his approval.
"No, not really. I have a good friend who is an architect, so he drew up the plans, and we went from there."
Flex continued is the same vain, "Just the sort of things our readers will admire and love to hear about. And of course you spared not expense, I can see on your furnishing of the house. Surely you must have quite a lot of valuable pieces throughout the house?"
"Some certainly. There are certain objets d'art which are moderately valuable. Most of the really valuable pieces are on permanent loan to the Port Alexander Museum," she said. "We like to be comfortable, of course."
"Surely security must be a problem? Many English houses are feeling threatened by vulgar intruders. Intruders who seem to be every more inventive in the ways they get around a house's so called security. Why! A person is hardly safe in their own home anymore! What do you think Mrs Roxbridge?" Flex added a note of flattery to his voice, as he deferred to her - hoping she would respond to his flattery with a willingness to be more open about her answer.
Flex noticed a certain tightening of her manner when he metioned intruders. "Security is an issue, of course, but our people are very good," she said shortly.
"Really" Flex answered, as he wondered how he could find out any more. "Either I lie about her security. Make up some defamatory rumours. And see if that will get any more out of her, or I go for a look see myself." Flex pondered to himself.
"Argh, I know I'd feel bad putting people's jobs on the line, if I started an unfounded rumour. Second option it is then." Flex agreed with himself as he thought over his options. "Well Mrs Roxbridge. You've been nothing but helpful. There is only one other thing I require...May I take the opportunity to look over the place. Seldom does one come to a place of such rare beauty as this. Your home does you credit, Madam." Flex gave a grand sweep as he offered this last comment hoping again to find some way forward. Nothing seemed to be leaping out at him at the present.
"I'll give you the tour myself," said the woman. "Let us begin here." She pointed out the interesting features of the room, architecturally and designwise, then led Flex into another room. She obviously intended to chaperone him carefully throughout the house.
Flex looked around seeking to take in all he could. With such a tight grip on his movements he knew she would not let him go far. But Flex took the opportunity to act dumb whilst examining ever window for signs of entry, or looking at pictures to see likely, or unlikely places for a safe. Flex did not know exactly what he was looking for but he knew there might be clues that linked what had happened here to the clues he had found already in this place. He was particularly interested in finding the room about which he had located the arrow.
That room was the master bedroom. The arrow was near the window that led into the suite. He listened with one ear, while he looked over the room. Nothing appeared out of place, but it wouldn't after this much time had passed.
Flex wondered if it was worth checking out a second time, later that night... But then decided that there probably wasn't much mroe to gain from this place. Thanking Mrs Roxbridge for her time, Flex made his way of the grounds and home.
Around 10:30 in the morning, Max saw the woman, Simone or Marilyn, come out of her townhouse and head into the garage. A few moments later, her car backed out of the garage, then headed down the street.
He waited for a few minutes in case she had forgotten something. When she did not return, Max ghosted through the floor of the car and traveled submarine style to her back yard. There he came up and did a quick visual search to for obvious security. If she had a run-of-the-mill system, he would have plenty of time. Motion sensors were another story. Cameras were right out.
He saw nothing which looked like a security system at all.
Surprised by the lack of home security, Max moved cautiously through the back wall. He didn't know how much time he had, so he concentrated first on the two places most people keep their important papers: the kitchen and the bedroom.
Max quickly found what he was looking for at a desk with an iMac on it. There was a folder of documents, and he quickly discovered that the bills were all in her name. The lease was only a little more help, she listed her job as temporary office help, and there was the name of an agency, "Sunny Temps."
He looked at the computer and considered trying to find something there. It had been since he left school years ago since he had used a computer and he was not that good with them then. He left it alone and took a few minutes to see look around a little more. If this girl was working as a high dollar call girl, he was sure there would be some evidence around. He also wanted to just get a feel for her to see if she could be saved after all.
Max poked around looking for a daytimer with incriminating evidence such as repeated "dates" or "appointments," but found nothing. He made so bold as to stick his head into her bedroom and even glanced in a few drawers. There was certainly some sexy lingerie in evidence, but Max wasn't sure it qualified as evidence, although it did make him uncomfortable.
If she was still seeing clients, she was not doing it here. His curiosity satisfied, he beat a hasty retreat from the house. He knew the Protectors would frown upon his current methods. In their Ivory Towers, the other heroes could ignore the decay of the city. Max was confronted with it daily and knew he had to do what was necessary to protect his charges. The ironic thing was they never questioned the origin of his information when they needed it.
Max returned to the car and sat for a minute, wondering where these feelings of bitterness were coming from. He fought through it, realizing it for the moment of weakness that it was. After all, he might have lived in a home just like that with a beautiful wife of his own if not for the circumstances of his life. He reminded himself that he had made the choice to live on the street to help those he could.
Some dirt could be washed off. Some stained the soul.
The company was not listed, but a call to information turned up a phone number. From there it was an easy matter to get the address from PC. The office of Sunny Temps was located in a non-descript business area, in a building that had many small offices in it. They were on the fourth floor.
Now Max was in his element. He flipped his trademark trench coat inside out. Now instead of a motley patchwork of materials, he was swathed in a ratty and dirty appearing raincoat. A baseball cap came from one pocket and a brown-bag wrapped bottle of water from the other. Now fully looking the part, Max relaxed against the alley edge of the building across the street. He was now invisible to the businessmen who walked the street. Under this urban camouflage, Max settled in to watch the main entrance of the office building.
During the day, Max saw a fairly standard parade of urbanites go in and out of the building. The office on the fourth floor was lit and he could see shapes moving back and forth in front of the windows all as one would expect. At quitting time, the lights dimmed and the building emptied.
Knowing that the regular members of the Protectors would take a dim view on his tactics, Beggar King left his alley and drifted up into the air. Ghosted out, as he was, penetrating the office building would be easy. The trouble was that this place would have security. Possibly cameras. He decided to try his luck peering through the windows first.
Through the window of the office, he saw a small one room layout. A secretarial desk with computer and a complicated multi-line phone, and a second, larger desk, with a nicer computer but a less complicated phone. A row of filing cabinets covered one wall, and a sort of kitchenette with coffee machine, sink, microwave and small refrigeratot occupied another.
The computers were worthless to Max as sources of information. And he would find no answers in the kitchenette except what sort of donuts they preferred. The filing cabinets might have some info, but he would have to be fast. Maintaining his disguise from earlier, he ghosted through the windows. He would not have much time, so he tried to work fast.
The headings appeared to be alphabetical. He pulled "S" and scanned it for Simone, but came up empty. He tried "A" and found Marilyn Anderson. He scanned her file quickly. For a temp she was extremely well paid, he noted, and the records of exactly where she was working and when were somewhat scanty.
Max pulled a few other files, looking for a pattern. Where they all female? Were they all well compensated? Did any of them have a better work record listed?
Afterwards, he checked the desk with the better computer.
Max found nothing that raised any particular hackles. A phone pad had a few scribbled names and numbers on it, mostly of names of companies. There was a stack of business cards - Marjorie Detman, Sunny Temps, "Let us brighten your day," and a phone number.
The brutality involved in G-Daddy's death was not something Max would attribute to a woman. He didn't think she was the killer, but she could very well surprise him. Max suspected she was involved somehow. He looked over the desk once again, thinking to look for pictures or personal mementos.
It was time to go for a swim. Once again he needed the expertise of PC and this time he thought it would be polite to ask in person. Before leaving, he took a couple of cards from the stack and stuck them in his pocket.
Max had PC run some checks on the temp agency, and she found nothing too unusual. They didn't seem to be under investigation by anyone, or be flagged in any of the usual databases.
"All the evidence says that this company is clean. My instincts are screaming otherwise. Maybe I've spent too much time on the streets..." Max nodded at PC's sympathetic look. "Looks like I get to do this the old fashioned way."
Max's day went through cycles of frustration as Simone stayed in most of the day and the few errands she did go on were patently innocent. She had dinner around five-thirty and around seven, just as Max was getting ready to give up, she left again. She was carrying a gym bag over her shoulder, but she had already visited the gym once today. Max's fatigue fell away as she walked briskly the few blocks to the PortRail station.
Max followed her as she took the train a few stops in toward the city center and then went above ground. She went to the corner of the street and looked around, obviously seeking something. A moment later, an SUV pulled up to the curb and the side door slid open. Simone entered and the vehicle pulled smoothly away from the curb.
Max lagged behind long enough to make a note of the plate number. He tried to stay above the vehicle while staying just above the rooftops of the buildings.
Aside from some strange looks as he floated past the occasional window, all went well. He watched as the van picked up another two women, then circled back into town. It stopped at a warehouse and backed up to the loading dock. From his vantage point, he could see that Simone and three other women, blindfolded, were hurried out across the few feet of empty space, and into the building. They did not seem to be harmed or worried in any way, just blindfolded.
Once the girls were inside, Max took the aerial view of the warehouse. He looked at the placement of guards, windows and exits. He scanned the area surrounding as well. He was morbidly curious at what was transpiring inside, but fought the urge to look until it was absolutely necessary. He wanted a good vantage point to see who entered and exited. If the roof was devoid of guards, he thought that an excellent perch.
After about twenty minutes, about 6:30PM, Max got antsy and decided to try to find a window. He found several, but they all seemed to give onto empty storage rooms except for one frosted one which he assumed was a restroom.
Confused, Max decided to be a touch more bold in his approach. He chose an empty storage room and ghosted in slowly.
He passed through the wall and found himself in a small empty room. There was another window on the other side, facing into the building, but it was boarded up or walled off on the other side. There was a door in that wall as well.
Max listend at the door and, hearing nothing, dropped down to the floor and slowly ghosted his face through just enough to see. It was immediately obvious why he had heard nothing; the walls and door were covered with sheets of some heavy material which must of had some some serious soundproofing ability. He saw a room that for one vertiginous moment looked like a medieaval dungeon, but which quickly resolved itself into a more modern dungeon, one given over to carnality of the sexual sort. It was empty at the moment, but he array of implements made its purpose clear.
Max pulled himself back into the storage room. He was shaken for a moment. He had expected something sexual, but nothing this extreme. He reminded himself to never, ever place any of his people with Sunny Temps. He sat on the floor, thinking of his next move. It all fit together. Now he just needed to wait to catch the dungeon master at home.
Max ghosted into the room and examined the setup. There were the usual devices which are euphamistically termed "marital aids," as well as a selection of torture implements, most of which seemed designed to cause pain rather than actual damage. The exit to the room was built on a little jog in one corner and he assumed, correctly it turned out, that it was a sound lock so as to prevent any noise from escaping the room as persons entered and left.
"These folks are way to organized," the Beggar King thought to himself as he headed for the door. Cautiously, he poked his head through, looking around to get his bearings.
He saw a corridor which looked like it ran most of the length of the building, with doors like the one in the room he was in on both sides of the hall, three on each side, six in total. At each end of the hall were doors as well, and his mental map told him that one probably led to a space which gave onto the loading dock where he had seen the women enter. The other probably opened on a room which had street access.
Not limited to two dimensions, Max ghosted again and drifted up to the ceiling. He decided to check the two "entrances" first.
The room at the end where the women had come in looked like a backstage area at a particularly kinky burlesque. The women he had seen were in various states of dress and undress, with the "dress" portion leaning toward the leather and rubber end of fashion. The accessories of choice appeared to be whips, boots and so forth. A pair of guards stood by the loading dock door with machine pistols on shoulder straps. The girls all seemed cheerful and happy as they prepared themselves.
Not yet ready for a fight, he returned to the hall and floated to the opposite end. If the "performers" were preparing at one end, then the "audience" might be at the other end. He fished around in his coat pocket for a disposable camera, just in case he needed to get some documented proof.
As he floated into the hall, he suddenly juked back up into the ceiling. Coming down the hall toward him were two figures. One was a striking black woman in an outfit reminscent of those the other woman were donning behind him, but who seemed somehow to wear it like a uniform rather than a costume. The boots and bodice were of black leather, but the whip was coiled on the belt and seemed somehow more businesslike than those being readied by the prostitutes near the loading dock. With her was a dour looking man who also had a whip on his belt. He was wearing simple brown clothes and a long cape, and on his shoulder perched a large black bird, a raven or crow of some kind, perhaps.
Max tried to stay out of view while remaining within earshot of potential conversation. If that meant following them, then he would do so. He suspected that it was time for the first act to commence.
The two walked down the hall and through the door. Max had identified a place or two where he could stick his head through the wall and have it hidden by furniture, so he did so and listened in.
He heard a male voice first, "... in room three. The Mistress of Pain and I shall join you for that encounter."
"Sure Nightmare Man, whatever you say," said a female voice. "Only, are you going to freak him out as badly as you did that Alderman? That cut into my profits, he was freaky."
"That is none of your concern, Aziza," said a different woman. "You will do as you are told. Are you not better off here than before?"
"Yes," said the first woman sulkily. "But ..."
"Then shut up," said the second woman. "Unless you wish to feel my sweet touch?"
"Oh no, Mistress," said the first woman, fear heavy in her voice.
"Delightful," said the man. "But enough. They will be arriving soon."
Men with machine pistols. Weirdoes with whips. This was much more than Max could handle alone. He pulled out of the room and ghosted up to the roof of the warehouse. He went over his options. He thought of the police. No, this Nightmare Man was doubtlessly endowed with extra-ordinary abilities. Tatterknight would be of great service. He also wondered about the Protectors. When he had stopped by to talk with PC, the base had been deserted. He thought it strange. After all, Ka-sador was usually there. He had thought to ask about it, but did not wish to burden PC with anything else.
He opened a private channel to Tatterknight to request his aid. Tatterknight answered and received the hurried briefing from Max. "I'll be there soon, my liege," he replied.
Twenty minutes later, his armoured form could be seen approaching the rendezvous point. He dropped to a knee, "How may I be of service, my Duke?"
"I have found a nest of vipers that need dealt with. In the warehouse there, there are several armed men standing guard in the back. They have machine pistols and nasty attitudes. There may be more. The place has various ladies of the evening about as well as clients. This is an extravagant operation, so the clients will be men of some social standing. The warehouse contains several internal rooms. We will go in through the back and work our way through." Max took a breath and let it all sink in.
"Inside there are two that are of concern. One is called Nightmare Man. I suspect he has some extraordinary ability to play on the fears of men and women. Another calls herself the Mistress of Pain. Both are armed with whips and doubtlessly can use them. I stumbled upon this all investigating the beating death of a pimp. I suspect these two are responsible. Do you have any questions?"
"No Your Grace. Let's get the bastards," said TatterKnight. "Pimp or no, he shouldn't have been killed that way."
Max looked at Tatterknight in the armour and suddenly realized why it had been so difficult to ghost the knight before. The added mass of the armour was a lot to take insubstantial. And he was about to do it again.
"I'm going to ghost us out and go through the wall. That should win us the element of surprise. Once you are solid again, go after the first guard. I'll take on the second."
The look of shock on the faces of the guards was priceless as Max and the TatterKnight appeared in their midst. The girls screamed as the two men solidified. TatterKnight's punch doubled his man up like an accordian. Max feinted with his left, as he had been recently taught, then landed a stiff right to his man's solar plexus. The man whoofed, and Max'es left to the jaw dropped him to the floor.
"Gun!" Max yelled to Tatterknight, holding out a hand. Max's champion tossed the machine pistol to his liege. A second later, Max had ghosted the two weapons into the concrete foundation of the warehouse. Some future archeologists would have one hell of a mystery on their hands. Turning to the women, Max summoned up his best menacing voice.
"Flee now and sort this all out in the morning!" Motioning toward his partner, "Let's go."
The two men moved out into hall, and saw The Mistress of Pain escorting a man who looked vaguely familiar toward one of the side doors.
The woman looked at the intruders. "Damn," she said, then shouted, "Nightmare Man, we've got company." She shoved the man she was with into the nearest door, on her left.
"We must assume she is no Lady," Max informed Tatterknight as he moved to engage the woman. "Your days of menacing my vassals is at an end, vile harlot. Marquise de Sade, meet Marquis de Queensbury."
Max flew forward and threw a sloppy punch. He was still ghosted, but the woman didn't know that. She shifted aside. Behind Max, TatterKnight came running up as fast as he could.
The Mistress of Pain lashed out with her whip, but Max was easily able to avoid her blows with revealing his insubstantial nature.
A door a few meters behind Max opened and Nightmare Man stepped out. "What's the ... ah." He uncoiled his whip and prepared to join the fray. He turned to engage the oncoming TatterKnight, while the Mistress of Pain lashed at Max.
The whip passed through the Beggar King and as the Mistress of Pain looked on in surprise, Max become solid and took a couple of swings at her.
Recovering from her shock, she lashed out again with her whip, calling, "This one's a ghost or something."
The Beggar King saw the whip coming and tried to flip desolid, but was a hair too slow. The whip slashed him vicously and wrapped around his body, before falling to the ground as he ghosted. The Mistress of Pain lashed the whip through his ghostly form again once or twice, muttering under her breath.
TatterKnight charged up and into the Nightmare Man, or rather he tried to. Instead, his punch went over the Nightmare Man's head and put a hole in the wall.
The Nightmare Man continued lashing at TatterKnight, while his bird took to the air above them cackling raucously.
The Mistress of Pain gave a last look at the ghosted Max and then ran to join Nightmare Man, joining him in lashing at TatterKnight and keeping him at bay.
TatterKnight waded through the lashing whips to strike at the Mistress of Pain, who seemed to be hurting him more than Nightmare Man. He punched out and she whooshed as the breath was knocked out of her. He slammed down again but she caught his fist and stopped him cold.
He swung with his other hand and landed a solid blow. She staggered back, close enough for Max to step up and clock her from behind. She dropped to the ground. The Nightmare Man, looked at the foes closing in on each side and lashed out to each side. TatterKnight fell to one knee.
As the lash flashed toward the Beggar King, he ghosted and the tip of the whip went through his flesh to strike the wall.
Nightmare Man whipped again at the TatterKnight who collapsed on the ground. "Terror!" called the man and raised his arm. The black bird zoomed in to land on it. "What now, ghost? Or ... yes, it's Beggar King, isn't it? We seem to be at a bit of a stalemate."
Max pulled out his pocket watch. "Actually, I just need to keep you here for another minute and change. With all this sound proofing, we won't be able to hear the sirens, Nightmare Man. Of course, you could try to run and you might get clear before the cops have the place surrounded..."
The Beggar King kept the Nightmare Man talking then suddenly leapt in to grab him. As soon as he had his hands on the man, he ghosted out and rose ten meters straight up through the roof.
"Release me," said the Nightmare Man, struggling to break free. He got loose and fell to the roof, resolidifying as he fell.
The Beggar King whipped out a disposable camera and got a couple of shots of the surprised villian then pulled his Protector's communicator and had PC put a call into the police.
"Damn you," snarled the Nightmare Man lashing with his whip again. He looked around, "Terror! Where are you?" The black bird was nowhere to be seen. "Terror!" called the man again, fear mounting in his voice. He ran to the door but found it locked. He turned back to the Beggar King. "It isn't over yet," he said and reached into his belt to produce a remote control. He thumbed the switch and the Beggar King heard soft explosions begin under his feet. "I hope your friend is ... durable."
"My god! You would kill your own people!" Max disappeared through the warehouse roof. He did not have much time to get all the unconscious people out.
Max dropped down into the warehouse and was pleased to note that everything was not completely in flames. TatterKnight was staggering to his feet as Max appeared, but the hall itself seemed relatively undamaged. One door near the front of the building, the one Nightmare Man had come out of, had been blown off its hinges, and flames were visible inside.
"Quickly, to your feet!" Max shouted to his champion. "This place is coming down around us."
Max hustled TatterKnight to his feet and told him to grab the Mistress of Pain. Then he headed back to the loading dock. He was relieved to note that the girls had scattered. He rolled the two unconscious guards clear and saw TatterKnight coming through with his prisoner. He ghosted out and did a sweep through the building. As he did, he was forced to revise his opinion of Nightmare Man's callousness downard a bit. The explosives had been expertly placed. In each of the five dungeons, explosions had destroyed equipment but fires were minimal. The lobby was nearly untouched. The sixth room had served as an office, Max guessed, and it had been completely destroyed.
Max ghosted back through the roof expecting to find nothing, and he was not dissappointed. The Nightmare Man had taken advantage of the distraction and fled.
When the police arrived, Max turned over the two goons, the Mistress of Pain, the business card for the temp agency, and the camera he had used to photograph Nightmare Man. He promised to appear in the precinct in a hour to give an account of what happened. He ghosted out and flew across town to the office he had investigated earlier.
The office was unoccupied and as near as he could tell, untouched.
Max quickly checked for explosives and found the place to be clean. He called the police in again and then headed down to the precinct to make a report.
Sting set the briefcase on the desk as he looked around. "MidKnight not here?"
Star Lad finished up an entry on the pad and set the pencil aside as he took a sip from a water bottle and leaned back in the chair. "He's out on a case, there's always trouble, you know," he said with a smile visible from his pulled up mask.
"True enough." Sting said. He opened the briefcase and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to Star Lad. "Please, feel free to count it, my math isn't always the best, but that should be the remainder of our agreed upon fee, plus the expenses you submitted on receipt."
Star Lad took the envelope, hefted it in his hand and deposited it into the desk drawer. "Feels right to me."
Sting paused before speaking again. "There was one other thing. In this investigation, you bore witness to several details of the case that are not public knowledge. Obviously, the Aftershock thing is the biggest part of that. In most detective agencies I've dealt with, there's a certain level of client confidentiality that exists. I wanted to know if the same existed here."
"Only as far as the greater good of society is concerned," Star Lad commented matter-of-factly. "Your secrets are safe with me, and to be honest I thought about writing a piece on the hidden Sting, his past, and what he did." Star Lad sat up and put his elbows on the desk to look into Sting's eyes, "But now I know what it is like to be under fire and the pressures put on you everyday for the last decade. I would have killed Ripper if you hadn't shown up when you did. Strange, isn't it? You ended up saving his life."
"Don't worry, nothing leaves the case file. Even if we had one," he grinned.
"Thank you." Sting said. "I took a big risk with going public on a lot of that with the both of you. I'm not proud of my past and where I've had to go to get there...but the both of you helped put some demons to rest. If you or MidKnight ever need the same, you know where to reach me."
Sting stood up before speaking once more. "You know, in the comic books this would probably be where I ask if you and MidKnight would be interested in joining the Protectors. And you know, the both of you would more than likely be most welcome...you're effective in combat, sharp minded, and want to see the greater good done. But I think both of you are in a much more effective position to do that here. Being 'for hire' will get you access to certain cases and areas that need people like us that public eye groups like the Protectors can't touch. What you and MidKnight do is important, and is part of what I feel is a tapestry of heroism, on all levels and walks of life. Havnig gone from a global task force to Port Alexander's most known hero team, I see the pluses and minuses of both. I wish you both well in being the heroes the Parts need...but also know that you are a great gift to this city, and this world."
Sting reached in the briefcase and pulled out two framed 8 x 10 black and white shots. One of MidKnight Star and Sting in the office they stood in...the other of MidKnight Star with Aftershock outside of the UN building. He handed them to Star Lad.
Star Lad stood and took the photos. Extending his hand he said, "Thanks Sting, and you're right. Me and 'Knight aren't exactly team player material, we fight more than brothers a lot of times, but we have a calling." He looked around the bare office, "It isn't much, but it is where we are needed. If you big-time Protectors ever need any help, you have our number."
"And our fee," he added with a grin.
Sting accepted the handshake and smiled. "Big time is what you feel, not how may press clippings you get. And trust me, I'm sure we'll be in touch."
Sting turned to leave. Walking into the night, he chuckled at Star Lad's slip...about him writing an article. He smiled at the prospect of Star Lad being a "mild mannered reporter" somewhere. He then ran off at top speed to his next, most important destination.
* * * *"Well hello, stranger! OOooh, the clean shaven look! What brought this on?"
Marie Vladistock smiled as Alex Crosby, roses in hand, walked through her doorway. "Felt like a change." Alex said. He had made a point of having the grey added back to his temples...didn't want Marie to think he was going through a mid-life crisis.
"So..." Marie started, putting the roses in water, "Did you get your business accomplished?"
Alex smiled and said "Yes. Yes I did."