Warning! Strong sexual innuendo and adult situations in this section!
"My goodness," I cooed, as he began playing with my breasts. "Again? Already?!"
"Well, I am a super," he said, with a smirk. "And I did pay for the whole night."
His stamina was impressive. So was his skill. He also had a sense of honor, and made sure I had as good a time as he did, something made easier by my empathy. Of course, that empathy was part of the reason he was having such a good time. Still, even with the bonus for the special treatment, I was glad when my shift was over. I saw him off at six with a smile and a blown kiss, then staggered upstairs to my room. I passed Carol on the way, her usually well-groomed tail and mane both a mess. We shared commiserating glances and passed without saying a word. Once in my room I tossed my soiled clothing into the proper hamper, then paused for a moment to examine my reflection.
As usual, a client asking for me presented a written description beforehand of what was desired. I haven't turned down many, but sometimes I wonder just how mature some of my customers are. This guy, at least, had picked something reasonable. I was Asian, with long, straight, shiny-black hair and dark skin. No tan lines, of course. Breasts and hips bigger than average but not extreme. Overall, not bad. Still, I was tired, both physically and emotionally, and had definitely had enough of alien forms for one day. I shifted back to male and took a quick shower.
As I dried off I briefly considered removing the nail polish, but decided to wait. I was worn out. Besides shapeshifting and empathy, I have a low level of regeneration to heal my hurts and keep me young, but that didn't help with being plain tired. Only rest could fix that. The towel went in a different hamper, and I headed, stark naked but in my own room and not caring, for bed.
As I pulled back the covers, however, I found a very large and grossly obscene vibrator lying on the sheet. I stared for a moment in confusion. Then something clicked. I put my hands on my hips and glared.
The sex toy hesitated for a moment, then began growing larger, changing color and shape as it became a naked man.
"Oh, well," he said, grinning. "You can't blame a guy for trying."
"Yes, I can! Now, out!"
"This would've been more fun if you'd stayed a girl," he muttered, giving me a distasteful look as he exited.
* * *
I am not only one of the main draws at Fantasy Works, I'm co-founder and part owner. Which means I have responsibilities beyond those of most of the employees. After too little sleep, I rose in the early afternoon and had a quick but nutritious meal (my shapeshifting isn't mass conservative, but I do like to keep my base form healthy) then settled down at the kitchen table to do some paperwork. One of the perks of being a partner in the business is that I have not just a room to myself, but also more than just a bedroom. The other half-dozen full-time gals and guys are two to an apartment, and they all share one large bathroom. I have my own, big, comfortable bed, my own bathroom and a kitchenette. Of course, no-one who stays at Fantasy Works complains much about lack of privacy. This place is a shelter for them. Even I admit we're some of the weirder supers in this area, and many of us have experienced harassment of various types and degrees. That was one of the reasons Sid and I started this place. Of course, the main one is that despite anti-discrimination laws, there aren't many places which will hire, for example, an inanimate shapeshifter.
Of course, Hiram brings a lot of his troubles on himself. I've made clear, over and over, that while I'll fuck guys for money, for fun I want something female.
Speaking of money, Sid had left a note that some had come in after his visit to the night deposit, and I needed to make another trip.
I sighed, finished my work, and got dressed. As usual, I was going out as my base form self. When I first got my powers I sometimes went out as a woman just for the thrill of it, but that had long ago lost its novelty value. Though I did sometimes still treat myself to the occasional romp as a dog or cat, or even a bird.
* * *
As I exited the bank I was startled to see several cops approaching me. At least one - a gorgeous, buff gal over a head taller than any of the others and looking real fine in her uniform - was probably a super. That, and the way several of them immediately focused on me, told me I was their target. I sighed and waited patiently for them.
"Lawrence Hawthorne?" said the head Detective of the bunch.
"That's me," I admitted.
"I'm Detective Barry Munroe. We'd like you to come with us for questioning."
"In regard to what?"
"That's something we'll talk about at the station."
"Am I under arrest?"
I knew I wasn't, or he'd have said so first thing, but I long ago learned to follow the formalities.
"No. We just need you to come in for questioning."
"All right. But I need to call my attorney to let her know where I'm going."
He didn't like that, but couldn't reasonably prohibit me from doing so.
I pulled out my cell and hit the appropriate speed dial. The call was brief; I apprised Martha of the
situation, including which police station, and assured her I'd call if things turned out more complicated than I could handle. I put the cell away and nodded to the Detective.
* * *
They seemed to have a very high opinion of my potential for physical mayhem. We all rode in the same van, everyone but the driver and Munroe in back. I was up against a wall of the van, with the giantess to my immediate right. She made a point of not touching me. The ride, fortunately, was a short one, though I had time to reflect on some interesting facets of modern super life.
The general rule is, people who want to help and have powers put on a costume, while people who want to help and don't have powers put on a uniform. Of course, most people don't want to help. I've certainly never felt the urge, beyond the occasional bit of sympathy for a friend having some bad luck. However, there were many reasons beyond wanting to help for someone to become a cop. This gal was obviously one of those with a different motivation. Which may be part of the reason she was so silently hostile towards me: I made her realize that neither of us was particularly noble.
We made a strange entourage, trooping in through the business entrance of the cop shop. The Detective led the way, directly to a small meeting room obviously reserved for this purpose. He gestured me vaguely into a seat, which I took, then sat himself across the table from me. The escort stood around the room, making it obvious they would brook no bad behavior on my part.
"Do you deny that you had a client last night who goes by the Mask name Major Front?"
Oh, great; start off the questioning with an accusation, why don't you?
"I had a client last night who could have been that person," I said, carefully, "but he wasn't in costume and didn't give that name."
"What name did he give?"
"Do you have any knowledge of his death, or who would have wanted to kill him?"
I froze, mouth partly open, staring at him. I shook my head, not to answer, but to try and gather my thoughts. At least now I knew why they were acting like this. A super murder is nothing to take lightly, even in Las Vegas.
"I didn't know he was dead. I... guess there are a lot of people who would want to ice Major Front, but I don't know any of them, and don't know of any plans any of them might have had to kill him."
I can't really turn my empathy off, and in these circumstances wouldn't have, anyway. That bit of insight into their mental processes was one of my few advantages in this situation. No-one in that room was happy about being there, and only partly because we were all involved in the investigation of the death of a popular hero. I was feeling pressured and intimidated, as well as shocked at the news of my previous customer's death. They also just plain didn't like me, what I was and what I did. I was getting the whole range from mild dislike to outright hatred. I was also definitely picking up a great deal of discomfort. Prostitution may be legal here, but that didn't mean the cops had to like it. Also, the whole idea of a shapeshifting, high-class hooker was making them uncomfortable. The fact that said hooker was normally a guy was positively freaking them out.
I played on this, subtly altering body and mannerisms to be more feminine. I delicately crossed my ankles and batted my now-long eyelashes at the Detective. Nothing overt; I have learned to be good at subtle. He managed to cover it well, but I knew he was becoming ever more flustered, and didn't understand why.
As a reward for my efforts, the questioning was definitely cut shorter than it otherwise would have been. Oh, they got all the information I had - I wanted them to have it; I had liked "Joe" and wanted them to catch whoever had killed him - but they skipped over the vague threats and borderline harassment I would have received otherwise. Maybe that was partly because I was obviously co-operating to the best of my ability, but previous experience told me that wasn't likely.
There was one bad moment. After having me pick my client out of a batch of photos, Detective Munroe asked (told, really) me to duplicate his appearance, so they could check finger prints and such to confirm he actually was Major Front, rather than someone who just resembled him.
"You'll need a court order for that."
"So you're refusing to co-operate."
"I am co-operating," I said, exasperated. "It's just that outside parody use and historical recreations I must have either the person's permission, the permission of next of kin, or a court order to duplicate the appearance of a real person. That's the law!"
I wouldn't have put it past them to try and trap me, but in this case I think that - while they probably knew the law - they just hadn't considered that I'd insist on obeying it.
He muttered something about getting back to me and went on to something else.
Once I was back out on the street I immediately "straightened" up. I was sad and irritated and angry and a bit afraid. Had this killing been personal, some bad guy getting even? Or was someone targeting prostitutes and their customers? We were the only facility I knew of with an all-super working staff, something which had caused us problems in the past. As co-owner of the facility and friend of many of the employees, naturally I was worried. As one of those supers, I was more than worried.
I'd had threats before, of course. Been attacked verbally - and a few times physically - by self-righteous bigots who felt their personal beliefs should be the law, and the law should be what they wanted, with no room for tolerance and no exceptions for any reason. But to actually have a customer killed, not long after leaving me... I made a firm decision to get back into that self-defense class I had drifted away from, earlier in the year.
I got Sid and Martha on a conference call and explained what had happened. They agreed that we should beef up security for a couple of weeks, and screen our customers extra-carefully. Maybe other stuff, as well, to be decided later. I sighed, put the phone away, and hailed a taxi.
Masks V, Part Two: The Last Angel
Tyler grabbed quickly for the bedside phone, so it wouldn't wake Marge. Then froze with a pang of grief as reality set back in with growing wakefulness; Marge had died nearly a year and a half ago. With a sigh he lifted the receiver to his ear.
"Tyler?! This is Sarah Bertollini! I think Angelo is dead!"
Tyler shook his head, vainly trying to wake faster.
"What... What happened?"
"I don't know! He went to bed early, and I stayed up a while to watch TV and when I got upstairs..."
"Have you called nine-one-one?"
He shouldn't have needed to ask. But Sarah, while by no means stupid, didn't handle the unexpected well, and often did things which made no sense later, even to her.
"No! Please, you have to come over, I don't know what to do!"
"Sarah... all right. I'll call from here, then come over. I'll probably beat the paramedics. Just... go
downstairs and wait for me. I'll come in the back. Oh, and turn all the outside lights on."
* * *
Tyler was fully awake by the time he had called, dressed and walked the short distance between the two Benedict Canyon homes. Sarah was actually waiting for him, opening the door as he stepped onto the patio and hurrying out to grab him in a desperate hug. Tyler gave the older woman a brief hug back, then held her at arms length, forcing her to look him in the eye.
"Go wait by the front door for the paramedics. I'll check on Angelo."
She nodded mutely and they went inside, she to the front of the house and he up the stairs. He half expected to find Angelo alive, perhaps having had a stroke. Alas, Sarah's panicked evaluation was correct.
His childhood hero and best buddy was lying face-down on the carpet between the bed and the bathroom, in his pajamas. A quick check found no pulse, at either wrist or neck. Indeed, the older man was already cooling to room temperature, leaving him to wonder how long Sarah had dithered before calling him. Tyler sighed, briefly closed his eyes in grief, then stood.
Angelo Bertollini didn't look almost eighty. Even in death, he could have passed for a vigorous mid-forties. Younger than Tyler himself was, now.
Of course, Tyler himself looked younger than his half century of true age. As someone expected to sell pools he kept fit and tan, partly from simply working on his company's projects.
Tyler sighed again, and turned to leave the room. He reflexively reached out and turned off the light. He felt a stab of guilt at that; Angelo had always hated someone turning out the light of a room he was in, as if they were dismissing him. Tyler looked back over his shoulder... and froze.
The still form on the floor was glowing. The glow was dim, but slowly strengthening, moving. Tyler moved quickly back to the body, squatting to stare.
As far as Tyler knew, nobody understood how Angelo's powers worked. He'd never admitted to having any of the genetic tests, apparently never even been formally evaluated. They just seemed to do whatever he wanted to use them for. He was such a nice guy, so good-hearted, and so casual about his powers that even Tyler had rarely thought about them. But now, something powers-related which was definitely strange - even a little frightening - was happening. Tyler thought about leaving. Just as the glow suddenly gathered itself into a large area on Angelo's back... and jumped at him.
Tyler came to as he heard voices below. He was sitting awkwardly on the floor, slumped against the bedroom wall, next to Angelo's body. The glow was gone. Not sure what had just happened, he stood - a bit shakily - and went to the door, turning the light back on as he stepped onto the landing.
"Up here," he called down to the paramedics, who were receiving some interminable and completely uninformative ramble from Sarah.
The two men climbed the stairs, entered the bedroom and began checking Angelo. They quickly confirmed what Tyler already knew.
"I'll break it to her," he said, quietly.
* * *
"One of the school's backers just died," said the voice in the phone.
Randy glanced over at the clock. The Academy didn't start the next semester for nearly two weeks and he'd expected to have the whole afternoon to himself. Only now, just after lunch, his time, the leader of the Bay Area Guardians was calling with bad - and school-related - news.
"Who? Anybody I know?"
"I don't think you ever met him," said Steel Lace. "He was a celebrity super. Angelo Bertollini was an actor who played - among other things - the character of The Caped Angel, back in the Sixties."
"I remember that show," said Randy, with a strange, sinking feeling. How could an angel die? "Though only from reruns. Wow. What happened? He wasn't all that old."
"He was older than he looked; almost eighty. Still, he was in good health. This is a shock to all of us."
"Thanks for the news," said Randy, in a tone tinged with sadness. "Guess I should send condolences. I mean, have the school officially send them."
He called several people connected with the Academy, including Eve. Who had a concern beyond what Randy had thought of.
"Will his estate or his heirs continue with his donations? If not, the amount he had promised would be a significant loss."
"Well, that's something we can wait a few days to inquire about," said Randy. "Not only would I feel ghoulish trying to find out this soon, it would definitely make a bad impression."
"Of course. Do you want to check or should I?"
"Uhm, you're better at this sort of thing than I am. You contact whoever is appropriate after a reasonable waiting period. If someone from the school needs to make an appearance I'm available. Or Template."
* * *
Eve called back late that afternoon. Template was definitely invited to the visitation and funeral. Apparently, Mr. Bertollini had placed a high value on what the Academy did. She gave Randy two numbers to call. Or, rather, Template, since hers was the more public name and face. One number didn't answer. The other call was picked up after three rings. Tyler Harrison agreed to meet with Template the next day.
Randy decided to cram before flying out to the West Coast. He fired up his computer and searched for information on Angelo Bertollini. There was a lot of it. After two hours of study he felt he had the gist of the situation.
Angelo had tried to be a real Mask, a true super hero, early on, in the late Forties when he first exhibited powers. He just didn't have the temperament for it. Too easy going and enthusiastic about life to relentlessly pursue evildoers, as it might have been put back then. There had been several incidents where he scolded someone he caught after a non-violent crime - a purse snatching, say - and then simply let them go. That had actually caused him some troubles with the law, which was a large part of what led him to retiring his nascent crime-fighting career and take up acting. Angel could act tough, because he knew it wasn't real. He'd had a modestly successful acting career before the TV show which made him famous came along.
Angels in Capes - the title decided on well before the show's star was picked - had started out as serious television. Yes, there was humor, but the program was intended as a slice-of-life show about a typical Mask. For three years it earned very good ratings.
Tyler Harrison had started out as a minor character, just seven years old, the fictional son of a fictional neighbor, but had proven so popular that early in the second season he had learned the Masked Angel's secret and become his confidant. In those days it was all innocent, nothing odd seen in a single man in his thirties (that was the character; Angelo had already been married for two years by this time) being friends with the pre-teen son of the couple next door. Despite the expected lewd jokes there was no indication from real life that either of the actors had ever been anything but heterosexual, or more than friends.
The show had settled into a comfortable niche, earning steady good ratings and looking to continue with little change for the foreseeable future.
Then that show had started. The one about a fictional hero, serious in the original material but played for camp on TV. And it had been a smash success.
The producers of Angels in Capes had panicked. Scripts were hastily re-written, to add slapstick humor and simplify plots. And putting Tyler in costume as the Masked Angel's sidekick, Acolyte. Even though the Masked Angel character had repeatedly refused to allow that before, saying he wouldn't put a child in danger. The first few episodes of the fourth season had held steady in ratings at a good, even quite respectable level. After the change the ratings had fluctuated wildly for weeks, before finally settling at a level significantly lower than before.
The show was still profitable, though less so with the changes. It was also still fun to do, if not as rewarding for those involved. It even managed - just barely - to survive past the end of Batman, then stagger on for a couple more years. The last season attempted to return to the series' roots, presenting more serious and straightforward hero adventures. The now-teenage Tyler was even acceptable as a serious sidekick by this time. The ratings slowly began to pick back up.
What finally killed it was the changing mood in the country. The war in Vietnam, the refusal of most supers to participate (many of them simply following US law, and the treaty - to which the United States was a signatory - banning the participation of supers in military actions) had soured the public, the press and the government on Masks. After seven years the network pulled the plug. By that time most of those working on the program - along with most of its fans - were ready.
Tyler had - after a period of adjustment - reentered the mortal world and completed high school and college. He'd joined his father's pool construction company, and been responsible for its successful expansion into a general landscaping and groundskeeping service. Tyler knew and was known fondly by many influential and wealthy people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills in those days, thanks to Angels. Something which still occasionally helped him.
Angelo had it a bit rougher finding work, at least for a while, but being a prudent man had enough saved and invested to keep him going. As the hero downturn reversed and Masks became popular again he was in demand as a celebrity, guest-staring on a number of TV shows and having - usually minor - roles in several movies, often portraying a veteran or retired super. Even the hero community welcomed him, many of the next generation of Masks saying his fictional example had inspired them to take up the cape for real.
Both stars had married successfully - a rarity in Hollywood. While Tyler had three children, Angelo had none. Randy was sad to see that the former child star had lost his wife, Beverly, early the previous year. With their three children all out on their own, they had bought a house near that of Angelo and his wife. And then, less than a year later, Beverly had died of a freak medical complication, leaving Tyler alone in that house. Apparently, he and Angelo and Sarah had grown very close since then.
Both of the men were currently worth several million dollars. Both gave generously to charity, though there Angelo far outshone the younger man. For example, he'd provided a hundred thousand dollars per semester to the Academy. The elderly super gave away everything he made from his investments, occasional acting jobs and guest appearances, except for enough to maintain himself and his wife in comfort. And he'd been doing this for decades, with no sign of stopping. Until now.
Randy wondered what had killed him. The early news reports on his death didn't mention a cause. Neither had Steel Lace. He'd simply been found dead in his Los Angeles home.
Well, maybe he'd find out when Template paid her visit the next day.
* * *
Template hadn't been to this part of the world in several months. She left early to do a little sightseeing, and in case she had trouble finding the neighborhood.
She diverted a bit off the most direct path to fly over Black Canyon Dam and the huge lake behind it. Some people still insisted on naming it after the nearby community of Boulder, even though the site had been moved before construction. Some even insisted on naming it after President Hoover. The huge concrete arch was incredibly impressive, especially when one realized it had all been built by normal humans.
Getting back to business, Template checked her GPS unit, and changed direction slightly. In minutes she was flying over the outskirts of Los Angeles. A bit of circling, and checking her mapping utility, and she had found the neighborhood, then the street, and finally the house. Template landed on the sidewalk in front of the building, checked herself over to make sure she was presentable, and headed up the sidewalk to the door. She was glad she'd stopped at the Planetary Guardians' base to change. Template was wearing her fancy, formal costume and figured she made an impressive sight.
She rang the doorbell. After a short wait, it was opened by a fit-looking man who would have been identifiable as the child star grown up even if she hadn't seen recent images of him the day before.
"Mr. Harrison? I'm Template. My friend Eve spoke to you earlier..."
"Yes," said the man, pulling the door wider and stepping back. "Come in."
"I wanted to meet with Mrs. Bertollini and offer my condolences," said Template, as she entered, "but she's not answering her phone."
"Yeah, Sarah's not at home. She decided to stay with her sister for a few days. Would you like something to drink?"
"A soda, please," said Template, a bit apologetically. "Fly does tend to dry a person out."
"I know," said Tyler, with a slight, sad smile. "Not only from flying with Angelo as a kid, but from some of the sixteen other supers who have already stopped by."
He returned in a few moments with a diet lemon-lime soda for each of them. They sat across from each other on separate couches, a coffee table between them.
"I wish I could have met him," said Template, sadly. "I try to meet all the school's benefactors, but some I just hadn't gotten to, yet. Running an institution of learning is definitely a full-time job."
"He was a wonderful man," said Tyler, fondly. "A real gentleman of the old school, born and raised in San Francisco. He always treated women with respect, even if he thought there were some things which were not proper for a woman to do."
"The show was off the air long before I was born, but I'm pretty sure I've caught every episode in re-runs."
"Well, probably not two of them," said Tyler, with a laugh. "There are two which are real stinkers, and should never have been produced. For some reason, both involved Angelo and me being in drag for most of the show. I suspect the writer had some sort of kink he needed to work out."
Template laughed politely with him at this, hiding her discomfort over something which hit a bit close to home.
"Do you know when the services will be?"
"Yeah. I'm executor of Angelo's estate. Visitation is Friday, from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon, with the funeral immediately afterwards."
Template remembered that she hadn't heard back from Eve and reluctantly moved to another topic.
"I hate to sound ghoulish, but since you're his executor..."
She hesitated, obviously uncomfortable.
"You want to know if you can still expect Angelo's donation," said Tyler, nodding. "Don't worry. That's one of the causes he has his trust fund donating to. It's automatic."
"I have to admit, that's a relief," said Template, with a tired smile.
"Well, he thought your school was a wonderful idea - so do I, for that matter - and wanted to make sure it was well supported."
With that out of the way they talked for a while. About who had already visited - half of them masks, many of them people Template knew - and who had called or written. This gradually transitioned into Tyler reminiscing about his friend and their shared experiences, on the show and off. He seemed to need to talk about this, and Template was definitely interested.
"It's no secret that many of the most influential people in Hollywood had ties to old-time organized crime," said Tyler. "Hell, some of the people behind Angels had been mobsters! I met several of them. Some were even supers, themselves. 'Long retired,' of course."
"One reason Angels had such great special effects is that we had real mad scientists creating them! I met Mechmaster, Hunch, The Grim Smile, and several less famous. All old men by that time, but still capable of building a death ray at the drop of a hat. Some of the inventions used on the show were the real thing, made from scratch or pulled out from where they had been hidden years earlier! They knew Angelo was tough enough to take what they could dish out. Though sometimes they came a little closer to his limits than any of us would admit at the time. But they were all on their best behavior working for the show. I think by that time they had mellowed a bit, and perhaps were also looking for some recognition. It's not easy to get into respectable histories of technology when your best work has been deathtraps and killer robots."
"I've seen the show in reruns, as I mentioned earlier," said Template. "I recognized some of the guest stars as old-time villains and heroes."
"They loved being on the show! It was a fun romp for them, reliving old glories in a safe, controlled fashion. They got to ham it up, chew the scenery, and show off."
The long-retired child star laughed again.
"I guess there's more than a little actor in everyone who puts on the Mask, hero or villain. And there's nothing wrong with that. Half of what gets done in this world is by people wanting attention."
The phone rang, and Tyler excused himself to answer it. Template quickly realized from his radical change in demeanor that this was no casual call. She glanced towards the front door, wondering if she should just leave. She looked over at Tyler again, and saw he was white and shaking as he spoke. No, definitely stay and see what was wrong. Finally, he hung up.
He stared at Template for several seconds before speaking. His quiet words were clear and distinct in the silence surrounding them.
"Angelo's body was stolen from the funeral home last night."
Masks V, Part Three: Another One Gone
"His is the fourth mysterious death of an established super in the past eight days," said NightMist.
Great-granddaughter of the original Mist - younger sister of the Night Master - she had inherited most of her Great-Grandmother's physical abilities and showed much the same intellectual faculties as the Night Master, himself. She was currently one of the Bay Area Guardians' two member detectives. Despite being just nineteen she was very good.
"Mr. Bertollini's autopsy showed little which appeared suspicious, though the Medical Examiner commented on some signs of hemorrhaging. Cause of death in his case was a cerebral hemorrhage. Unexpected in someone that healthy, but not too surprising considering his age. Many elderly people take aspirin or something else which can cause such symptoms in large doses, the ME simply didn't think there was need to check any further. Since the other three victims were all associated with the Thunder Family and Mr. Bertollini wasn't, his death wasn't connected with those. However, given this crime, the coroner's office ran some additional tests on the blood and tissue samples they had taken. He was loaded with a prescription blood thinner."
"Murder?" said Template, shocked.
"Neither Mr. Bertollini nor his wife had prescriptions for it. None was found in his home. They went out for dinner that night, and the police are checking the restaurant."
"How were the Thunder Family members killed?"
"The methods varied, though at least two were poisoned in different and creative ways. Both through a purchased, prepared meal."
"Hmmmm," said Template, thinking hard. "As far as the official histories go, there's no connection between Angelo and the Thunders. However, the official history doesn't really say where his powers come from. He began exhibiting them when he as seventeen, and was assumed to have them genetically, like most supers."
"Which begs the question of whether that assumption is accurate," said NightMist.
"I know a good person to ask," said Template.
"His executor, Mr. Harrison."
"Yes. Do you folks want to handle this, or maybe the Planetary Guardians..."
"I'll ask, but since you've already made friendly contact, and he's an information source just now rather than a suspect, I believe the consensus will be that you are the best person to question him in regard to this matter."
* * *
As soon as he answered the bell, Template knew there was something wrong.
"What is it?"
"Sarah Bertollini is missing," said Tyler, gaze, voice, even posture haunted.
He shook his head, and gave Template a puzzled look.
"I... thought that was why you are here..."
"No, I had some questions about Angelo's powers," said Template. She put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't even know anything had happened to her."
"I think you better come in," said Tyler, sighing.
"I am really sorry about this," said Template, entering his home for the second time in as many days. "We uncovered evidence that Angelo may have been poisoned, and I wanted to ask you some questions about matters which might pertain to that."
"One more shock," said Tyler, with a tired sigh. "I suppose, in this crazy world, that I shouldn't be surprised that someone would want to kill a man as easy-going and good hearted as Angelo."
"There have been several supers killed in the past week," said Template, as the two of them walked slowly into the same den where they had spoken on her last visit. "Angel isn't known to have any connection with them, but if he did..."
"I... Think I need to show you something."
He stopped for a moment, then frowned in concentration. And lifted off the floor, to hover unstably for a few seconds before dropping back with a light thump.
"I didn't know you're a super," said Template, warily.
"I wasn't... until the night of Angelo's death."
He related the odd events with the old man's glowing form.
"Angelo told me, more than once these past couple of years, that he'd made sure he would leave me something special when he died," said Tyler. "I didn't think anything of it. For all I knew he'd outlast me by a good margin, as vigorous and healthy as he was. I wonder if this is what he meant."
"So his powers weren't genetic. Could they be from the same source as the Thunder Family's?"
"I have no idea. He just never talked about where his powers came from, would skillfully change the subject or make a joke if someone asked. Wait... Those supers you mentioned. They were all...?
"Yeah. The most recent was Major Front, just three days ago."
* * *
"That's the sixth time the cops have come by here!" said Holly Terror, barely not shouting. "This is getting ridiculous!"
Holly has the ability to manipulate the neurotransmitter balance in animals. Unfortunately, that includes her own. She occasionally gets into a positive feedback loop and needs an intervention. Right now I was trying to calm her down, using my empathy to guide me in choosing form and manner. Which is why I looked like a middle-aged father figure for the moment.
"I know, I know," I said, rolling my eyes. "Martha has already filed a formal complaint. That should stop the visits. If it doesn't, we'll sue 'em for harassment."
Fortunately, that calmed her.
"So, have they heard how the guy died, yet?"
"Poisoned, from what I heard," said Sid. "Cops tore the fancy restaurant where he had his last meal apart. Aren't saying if they found anything."
"Must have been something potent to kill Major Front," I said, impressed.
"He was in his civilian ID. Why that would make him more susceptible to poison I don't know."
"There's stories that the whole Thunder Family only have their powers part of the time," said Holly. "They charge up or something."
"Honey, he was certainly charged when he was with me!" I said, shifting to the form I'd worn for him. "Wow. And it lasted all night."
"Well, whatever happened, it didn't have anything to do with us," said Sid, firmly. "And let's hope the cops realize that soon!"
* * *
Template had talked Tyler into going with her to the Planetary Guardians' base for testing. She wouldn't let him fly, since he wasn't very good at it, yet, and he wouldn't let her carry him. So he drove the two of them, in his Corvette. A few drivers had odd reactions to seeing Template in the passenger seat, in costume. Template was feeling a little odd, herself.
"I think, instead of putting him through the regular tests to see what he can do, we need to let Aura have a look at him to see how he does it," said the Guardsman, after Template explained the situation.
"Probably a good idea," said Template, nodding. "Transferring power like this implies something mystical or metaphysical."
"And I agree," said Aura, the team's chief magical type.
"I don't suppose I get to have a say in this," said Tyler, glumly.
"You agreed to be tested," said Template. "Unless you have some objection to the particular method..."
"No, no, I'm just feeling a bit weird at actually having to go through this," said Tyler. "I've known some of you folks for years - Guardsman, I met your predecessor several times - but always as a civilian, an actor. A pretender."
Template half expected the examination to be private, between Aura and Tyler, and conducted in some mystical spot. Instead, she just closed the door and conducted it right there in the meeting room. The procedure also took far less time than Template was expecting.
"He possesses what we call an integrated energy matrix," said Aura, after just a few minutes of silent work. "While the matrix itself is not magical, I suspect the method of implantation is."
"I don't think Angelo ever said anything about getting his powers through magic," said Tyler. He shrugged. "Of course, he never said much about how he got his powers, period."
"There's something familiar about the structure of this particular matrix," said Aura, frowning.
"Well, several members of the Thunder Family have also been murdered recently," said Template.
"No, that's not it. There are similarities, yes, but this has a particular form... Ah. I remember. Dr. Gaunt."
"Wait," said Guardsman, holding up a hand. "The old man who has been the Thunder Family's nemesis for all these decades?"
"Yes," said Aura, nodding. "Several of his henchman have had an energy matrix very similar to this one."
"You mean folks like Lightning Lady, Fulgerite, and such?" said Template.
"The power strengthens the recipient. Improves them, increases what they can do. With discipline, the energies produced can also be willfully directed towards specific tasks."
"Huh. Wonder what the connection with Angel is," said Tyler, frowning. "Come to think of it, he first showed his powers not long after the last of those folks Template mentioned appeared."
"That does sound like the way you described Angelo's powers working," said Template. "That he could use them to do whatever he wanted."
"It does," he said, nodding in agreement. "But I just don't see how there could be a connection. Angelo was a West Coaster all his life. The Thunderers are based in the Rockies."
"Yes, but Dr. Gaunt is from San Francisco!" said the Guardsman, suddenly. "Rumor has it that after missing the California Gold Rush he spent several years in the Rockies prospecting, after gold was reported there."
"He's that old?" said Template, surprised.
"Oh, yes," said Tyler. "He looked almost exactly like he did in his most recent public appearance, just a couple of years ago, as when he first gained notoriety in the late Thirties after an attack on Captain Thunder."
"If he is behind these murders," said the Guardsman, carefully, "we could have a major event on our hands. That man is insane, and insanely brilliant, and has access to both mystical and scientific resources."
"I remember the last time he hatched one of his schemes," said Template, seriously. "It was nearly a decade before I took up the Mask, when I was still just a kid. Thousands died."
"And much of Denver was badly damaged," said the Guardsman. "Including the mint. They caught him, but
millions in gold and silver are still missing. He said the precious metals were his by right of lawful claim, and that those who mined them had stolen them from him."
Masks V, Part Four: Relative Problems
Warning! Strong sexual innuendo and adult situations in this section!
"'ey, come look!" London Broil called out to me as I headed for my room after a fairly routine client.
She beckoned to me from the door to her and Steam Heat's shared room. One which had been modified to resist high temperatures. When I stepped inside their (fortunately) merely quite warm room, I saw a man-shaped, life-sized, life-like solid rubber doll on the bed. I stared for a moment; then something clicked.
"That's Hiram, isn't it?"
"Yep," said London Broil. "'e's learned another one! And 'e's now made of high-temperature silicone!"
"How many forms does that make, now? Six?"
"Seven, if you count the inflatable sex doll," said Steam Heat, in her soft, hissing voice. She laughed, sounding a bit like an old-fashioned radiator gone spastic. "Of course, he'll never willingly take that form again."
I moved closer and examined him. Then I gently took hold of his generous silicone erection and tugged, and wiggled it a bit.
"The real ones have detachable cocks," I said, releasing his artificial manhood. "So you can try different sizes and shapes."
They both burst out laughing.
"You mean the real fake men 'ave detachable dicks?!" said London Broil.
"But because he's a fake fake man..."
"Yeah," I said, leaning over to examine his face, with it's unblinking eyes and fixed smile. I deliberately let my gown gape open to reveal my currently bounteous bosom. He couldn't move his eyes - his whole body was one solid piece at the moment - but I knew he was staring at me. "Of course, he's probably glad it doesn't come off, right now. Just like he's glad you can't remove his batteries when he's a vibrator."
I leaned in as if to kiss him, but instead slowly ran the tip of my tongue across his tinted silicone right eye. I straightened, smiling, and tugged my gown closed.
"Okay, now that I've warmed him up for you, have fun."
"Want to join us?" said Steam Heat, with a sultry look.
I was tempted. Not because of Hiram, but because of the girls. I had the time; the police visits had cut into our business. Still, I wasn't really in the mood just them.
"Have fun," I repeated, waving as I walked out, closing the door behind me.
I was almost to the door of my own room when the whole building shook. My first thought was Earthquake! but even then I knew it wasn't. I ran towards the stairs.
Down at ground level, there was a large hole in the front of the building. Storm Crow - a troublesome member of the Thunder Family - was standing in the lobby, amid the dust and debris, looking enraged. Bizarrely, the large front window was intact. One of those little details you sometimes notice in the middle of an emergency.
"Where's the whore who set my cousin up?!"
Every single person in the room turned and fled. Every single person sticking their head out a door to see what was going on immediately yanked it back in. The sole exception was me; I began edging backwards, slowly. Storm Crow promptly zeroed in on me. He leapt across the distance, slamming into me, then slamming me into the wall, knocking the wind out of me.
His arm went across my throat, not crushing but choking enough to tell me he meant business.
"Why?! Why did you help kill him?!"
I could smell alcohol on his breath. And feel - besides anger - loss, sorrow and remorse. And came up with a desperate plan.
I shifted, into a mousey twenty-something with big, brown eyes. He looked startled, and I felt his mood change a bit.
"Please don't hurt me," I whimpered, hoping I wasn't overdoing it. "I didn't do anything except give him sex. I didn't even know who he was, or that he was killed after he left here, until the cops told me the next day. I didn't have anything to do with him being killed, nobody here did. This is just a place he stopped."
He released me and stepped back. I gathered my gown together, pulling it tight around me, shrinking into it.
"You don't know anything about who killed him or why?"
I shook my head, looking down, afraid to meet his gaze.
"I can tell you're telling the truth," he said, sourly. "Damn whore. Get out of my sight!"
I turned and fled back to the stairs. He walked out the hole he'd made in our front wall and flew away.
* * *
The police arrived quickly, for once. I guess all their recent practice helped them find us. I barely had time to shift back to my base form and change into some appropriate clothing. The responding officers made sure no-one was hurt, then made sure we all waited for an investigator to arrive. That turned out to be my old friend Detective Munroe. That large female uniform was with him, still looking very attractive, still playing the strong, silent type and still acting as if I - and all the other sex workers - carried the Plague.
Munroe and his assistants questioned us for hours. Naturally, business was over for the day, and probably longer. Oddly, the cops found no-one but employees in our establishment. Seems the few customers who had been there had fled very promptly when the attack started. I had to think this couldn't be good for business...
The Detective tried to somehow make it sound like was all our fault, that we'd somehow provoked Storm Crow. Fortunately, by that time Martha was there. She pointed out that the super in question had a history of going off entirely without being provoked.
Martha had come to our rescue again. I had a great deal of admiration for that woman. She'd worked her way through law school as an exotic dancer, and turned more than a few tricks, herself. She knew the score.
One of the more bizarre aspects of Munroe's questioning of me was that he insisted I take the two forms I'd worn when confronting Storm Crow. I think he was getting off on that, though my empathy couldn't tell for sure. Too much noise from the other cops. Even under the circumstances, their getting turned on turned me on. A distraction I definitely didn't need just then.
Finally, we got rid of the cops, thanks largely to Martha's baleful glare. Even as they walked out they gave us "warnings" which were just barely not overt threats. As soon as they were gone Sid called around and got hold of a contractor who could send someone out that afternoon. And, no, we didn't offer any special inducements to get a price break. We wanted the work done quick and right, not cheap. I
wondered if our insurance would cover the damage.
* * *
With the repairs under way, Sid and I sat down and held a council of war. We confirmed something the cops had let slip; that someone was killing members of the Thunder Family. So far the press hadn't really twigged to the story, mentioning each death as a separate event. However, one local newspaper had an editorial which did connect them, and even the death of actor Angelo Bertollini. Frankly, I thought that was reaching. To me his poisoning and the theft of his body seemed more likely the work of some demented fan. God knows I've had more than enough of those myself.
"I hope this isn't some plot against supers in general," said Sid. "Hell, I hope it's not even a plot against the whole Thunder Family. Not only do I like most of those folks, the last thing we need is some sort of super war in our neighborhood."
"So far, it's the loners among them who have been targeted," I pointed out. "Could be whittling down their allies before the main assault."
"I can ask around some places to see if anyone is hiring for something like that," said Sid, frowning in thought. "I'll check my connections."
"I'll check with some folks I know who may have inside information," I said.
"Going to go undercover?" said Sid, smirking.
"God, no! I got enough of that in the Fifties, when I worked with that private-eye. Though I'm not going out as Larry. Think I'll pick somebody I haven't used in a while, but who would still be recognized by the people I want to talk to."
* * *
My preparation took over an hour. Ironically, getting ready to go out in public as a woman takes me longer than getting ready to give sex as a woman. I sat at my dresser, evaluating my makeup, in the form I had chosen and with my clothes already laid out on the bed.
The main advantage of this form was that it happened to have valid - and legal - ID, as Loraine Hawthorne. A holdover from the days when I was trying to keep my professional and private lives as separate as possible. Come to think of it, I guess I did have a secret identity, of a sort. I had an uneasy moment when I realized my driver's license might have expired, but a quick check showed it to still be valid.
I was using a form I had long ago titled "Variation #5" - a buxom blond with a head of gorgeous, long hair and legs up to here. Once satisfied my makeup was fine, I dressed appropriately. Blue leggings, powder blue silk blouse - no bra - modest heels - #5 is a tall gal - and a red scarf, topped off by a sexy pair of shades. I checked myself in the mirror and noticed my nipples showing. I hadn't worn this form in a while and was actually turning myself on. Well, I'm long past being embarrassed looking aroused in public, as a man or a woman, and for this task having those showing might actually be an asset. I added a modest amount of jewelry and set off.
All anybody in town had was rumors. Though they were quite willing to give those. I'm still amazed at how many men will answer almost any question asked by an attractive woman they even think might be coming on to them. Bragging, showing off what they know to impress a potential mate, is instinctual. Women, on the other hand, can be guided to see another woman as a potential confidant. Approach with a sympathetic ear and they'll be eager to get things off their chests. And, no, I didn't prostitute myself to gain information; I get enough of that at work. My empathy, acting experience and decades of practice were all I needed to go with that pretty body to gain full co-operation. I'd gotten very good at this sort of thing, working at that detective agency.
Still, no matter how eager they were to respond to my questions, they didn't really have significant answers. So, I topped off the tank in my Corvette and headed out into the desert. The sun was less than two hours from setting and I had a long way to go. Fortunately, I knew a route with little police presence.
James "Lethal Shock" Cutler was last on my list, partly because I really didn't want to see him, and partly because he was the furthest from my usual haunts. He was a retired villain who had worked for Dr. Gaunt in the late Sixties and early Seventies, before deciding there were safer - and saner - ways to earn a buck. He'd been a bouncer at a porn studio where I worked for a few months, and we'd run into each other occasionally after that, before he moved to a mining town not far from Las Vegas. As far as I knew, he had never met Lawrence, but would definitely recognize Loraine. She - I - was one of his failed conquests; I don't think he ever admitted to himself I wasn't interested in guys outside of work. He was semi-retired, these days, but might still have his ear to the ground.
I almost backed down when I saw two other vehicles in his driveway. One was probably his, but the huge van with deeply tinted windows looked out of place. I hesitated, then shut the engine off and got out. I was sensing a strange tension in the air, and thought I might be able to play off that to learn something. Few people take bimbos seriously, and I could be disturbingly convincing in that role.
I rang the doorbell. And gasped at a sudden flood of emotions, immediately followed by sounds of violence. Super violence. Realizing my interruption had triggered something, I turned and ran to my Corvette as an energy blast blew through the roof in back.
I started the engine, ground the manual transmission into reverse, and backed out onto the road. I shifted into first, then hesitated. Holding the clutch in, I grabbed my cell phone out of my purse and dialed 911. I gave the address, and shouted that there was a super fight underway.
I still didn't see anyone, but whoever had attacked Jimmy wasn't having an easy time of it. The fight was still going on and getting more vigorous. I shifted into reverse again and backed slowly down the road. By the time I stopped, everything had gone quiet. There was a long pause. Then several people I didn't know hurried out to the van and got in. They were all definitely the worse for wear, and Jimmy wasn't with them. I gave the operator make and model and a partial license number, glimpsed as they backed out on the highway going by Jimmy's house. I sagged in relief when they drove off in the other direction.
I waited until the maroon vehicle was out of sight, then pulled back into the driveway. Still talking to the 911 operator, I told her I was going to see if Jimmy was hurt. She didn't like the idea, but admitted the ambulance was at least twenty minutes away. Entering the house was easy; I just stepped over the bottom edge of a hole punched in the rear wall when someone threw a home entertainment system through it.
Inside I saw Jimmy laying in the stereotypical pool of blood. His neck was obviously broken, and he had other injuries. I reported all of this to the operator, then staggered outside before vomiting.
Masks V, Part Five: Fruition, or Fermentation?
Template was still in the area, still investigating both the death of Angelo and the theft of his body, and the murders of several members of the Thunder Family. Just now she was waiting for Steel Lace to finish dealing with a courtesy visit by a Japanese government-sanctioned hero group, four men and two women, most of them in their teens or early twenties. They had just told Steel Lace the Anglicized version of the name they planned to use during their tour of the US, and she was trying to phrase her reaction diplomatically.
"If I may make a suggestion," said Steel Lace, to the visiting supers. "Big Brother Six has some... unpleasant connotations in England and the US. A few other nations, as well."
"What could possibly be bad about our team name?" asked the leader of the Japanese group, a father figure approximately forty years of age.
"Well, in a famous dystopian novel, Big Brother was someone who projected his presence into the private lives of everyone."
"Exactly! We want people to know we are looking after them!"
"But there's a big difference between looking after people and invading their privacy."
"Oh, we'd never do that," said the second-in-command, a maternal woman who seemed to be in her mid-thirties, smiling eagerly and nodding her head.
"Yes, but that name could give the impression, here, that you keep an eye on the average citizen."
"But that's what heroes do," said the youngest, looking puzzled. "Help the government keep people out of trouble."
Steel Lace sighed, and let the matter drop. She motioned for another member of the Bay Area Guardians to come over.
"This is Lungfish. He'll show you around and introduce you to the rest of the team. I have another visitor I need to speak with, on super business."
"Thank you!" the team members happily chorused.
"Different culture," said Template, watching as they left.
"I'll say," said Steel Lace, sighing.
Neither had much in the way of news. They reviewed what each - using various resources, including those of other super groups - had discovered, and tried to brainstorm a bit. They hadn't had much luck. Neither had the police, but in a situation like this few were being territorial, and all were desperate to solve the problem.
"We just don't have enough information," said Steel Lace, waving her hands in exasperation. "There's no leads! And that fact, alone, strongly suggests that Dr. Gaunt is involved. He is very good at covering his tracks, even from mystics and mentalists."
They sat in sour silence for a moment. Then both jumped when an alarm sounded.
"Super fight called in," said Brobdignagian, who was on monitor duty.
He gave the location. Steel Lace punched it up on the interactive map.
"Too far away for any of our team to reach quickly," she said. "Out of our usual jurisdiction, any way."
"I think I'll go take a look," said Template. "I'm as frustrated as you are. Maybe a good fight will help my blood pressure."
"Just don't be the one to start it," said Steel Lace.
"I promise," said Template, with a slight smile. "Mainly, I just want to go out and fly. Maybe clear my head with some fresh air."
* * *
I thought they'd probably send supers, and if so that they'd arrive before the regular police. So, I kept scanning the sky, as well as the road. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes after the attack I saw someone flying towards the house.
I noticed she looked familiar, as she landed beside my car. Familiar enough for me to know she wasn't a local. I couldn't place her, though.
"I'm Template," she said, not ringing any bells, as I climbed out to meet her. "Are you the one who called in the assault?"
"I'm Lorraine Hawthorne," I said. I gestured towards the hole. "He's... in there. Just inside the hole in the back wall."
She nodded and lifted off, flying gracefully around the corner of the house.
That's handy, I thought. She just floats around, not touching the floor, doesn't even mess up the evidence.
I wondered, though, and not for the first time, if such impressive powers distanced the people who had them from everyone else. If you can fly like that, would you even care if the price of gas went up?
I glanced back out at the road, looking towards town, still expecting the paramedics and police. I missed her return until she spoke, from almost within arm's reach just as she was landing, making me jump a bit.
"What was your business out here?"
"Uh, I used to know him, and thought he might be able to give me some information about a problem I'm having."
"A problem with super connections?"
Ow! She had hit right on it.
"Well, yeah," I admitted. "He used to work for a villain, and... well, it's complicated and personal and I'd rather not go into it."
I realized she couldn't press the matter. She wasn't a cop, wasn't even local. I remembered, now, that she was from back east, formerly part of a team and now involved with some sort of school for supers. Yet another way the masks isolate themselves from those who don't wear costumes, even other supers. I noticed she was staring at me.
"Is something wrong?" I asked, icily.
"You could have worn a more practical outfit for the desert."
I was getting some interesting vibes from this gal. Aside from a mild distaste, I was sensing flashes of arousal, quickly subdued. I also noticed she kept sneaking peeks at my chest. I subtly pulled my shoulders back and willed my nipples larger. Bingo! She was attracted to me. Lesbian or bi? Well, it didn't matter. Either way I know knew I had an advantage.
"For the desert, yes," I said, smirking, and deliberately posing in a sexy manner, as if to illustrate how I had planned to interact with Jimmy, but actually to fluster her. "Not for asking for a favor from a man. Besides, I'm not the one wearing a skin-tight spandex body suit and high-heeled boots."
"It's not spandex, it's not skin tight, and appearing taller gives an important psychological advantage," said Template, stiffly.
Bingo! If she'd been equipped for it, more than her posture would have been stiff. In fact, the way she positioned her body reminded me of how a man would stand to try and conceal an erection. Odd, that... I could sense she had other reasons for the heels besides that one, though it was certainly valid, but didn't press the issue. I'd made my point. And I'd made her uncomfortable. (Yes, I'm a manipulative bitch as a woman. Live with it. I'm trying to survive in a rough and often hostile world, not make friends with everyone I meet.)
The wind shifted and I heard sirens. Looking down the road I could see three police cars and an ambulance.
"And here comes the cavalry," I muttered.
* * *
She hung around, and the cops let her listen as I made my statement. As the detective who arrived to oversee the investigation was organizing his notes, this Template gal moved over to him and they had some quiet words. He then came back to me and asked some pointed questions. About my connection to Dr. Gaunt.
"I don't have one," I told him. "Except that I've had contact with two members of the Thunder Family in the past few days and I know he's their mortal enemy."
They didn't think I was being completely honest with them, but since I wasn't a suspect the only thing they could do about it was get my contact information and promise (read: threaten) to get back to me.
As I walked to my car, though, Template intercepted me.
"Listen, I'm trying to find Dr. Gaunt. It sounds to me like you are, too, or at least determine if he's after you for some reason. I think we can help each other."
I didn't fucking believe it! The bitch was trying to be friendly! And not just because she wanted in my currently female pants! The worst part was, she honestly believed this was a reasonable course of action. She had the nerve to be surprised when I told her to get the fuck away from me and stay there.
I cooled off some on the way home. Enough to start worrying about the consequences of my actions. I kept checking my mirror and looking up, trying to see if she was following me. I didn't think so, but how could someone like me be sure about someone like her?
I made it back to the Fantasy Works garage okay. I parked, and sat in my car for a bit, just gathering myself as the overhead door closed. Then I got out and started walking towards the door.
I gasped and froze as a man stepped out of the shadows, pointing a strange-looking gun at me.
"You will be silent," he said, quietly. "You will answer my questions. Do not make a row or you will be harmed."
"Dr. Gaunt," I whispered, shocked, not believing I was alone with and being held at gunpoint by one of the most evil men on the planet.
"I see my fame has preceded me," he said, that odd, wheezing laugh of his making me shiver.
He was a shrunken, wizened, gnome of a creature, with thick glasses and a full head of stringy white hair. There was something... inhuman about him. In photos and on TV he looked like a bent old man, but up close like this... and what my empathy was telling me was things I definitely didn't want to hear.
"Why were you at the home of James Cutler?"
"Trying to find out if it's just the Thunder Family members being targeted, or us, here, too," I babbled, unable not to talk.
Again, that wheezing laugh, this time punctuated with an odd honking.
"Oh, the fascinating irony. Had you not meddled in my business you would have remained outside my perception. But now you will pay the price for your curiosity."
"Please!" I whimpered, frozen in place. "I didn't do anything! I don't want anything to do with you or your plans! I just want to..."
There was no warning, no indication. The muzzle of the device glowed a hellish red, and I couldn't move. With a surprising show of strength, given his size and apparent physical condition, he put me over his shoulder and carried me out of the garage. The worst part of it was, any "bad touch" contact was strictly incidental. He had no sexual interest in me whatsoever.
I expected to be placed in the trunk of the limo he carried me to. However, at his indication the chauffeur nodded and opened the right rear door. Dr. Gaunt propped me up in the seat, complete with fastened seat belt and shoulder harness. He then got in the other side, while the chauffeur held the door open.
I was terrified. Even without the effects of that ray gun I'd have been paralyzed. The chauffeur closed the left rear door and that hideous old man sidled across the leather to sit beside me, smiling and taking my hand. His touch felt hot and rough; his skin was dry, almost as abrasive as course sand paper.
"Don't worry, my dear," he cackled, obviously playing the part of rich old fart with a pretty young thing he'd paid for the company of. "We'll be home soon."
Before the driver could get in, however, I saw something. Someone. Template. Landing just in front of the car.
That bitch followed me! Thank God!!
The chauffeur straightened, removed his coat and hat, tossed them onto the driver's seat, and raised his fists like a gentleman boxer. Template, face without expression, started walking towards him.
"Miss Hawthorne, are you with this man willingly?"
I couldn't answer, but realized that the way she had phrased the question meant I didn't have to.
"You may have this one, Bruno," said Dr. Gaunt, with a magnanimous wave of his hand.
I couldn't see his face, but I know the chauffeur smiled. He advanced on Template and threw a quick jab at her head. She dodged and punched back, not hard. I realized she was being careful, since she didn't know, yet, how strong the man was.
Idiot! Never assume anything to do with Dr. Gaunt is normal!
She learned that the hard way, when Bruno rang her chimes good with his next punch. Template staggered back, and Bruno closed. Fortunately, she was pretty tough, and smart enough to learn quickly. Her second punch slammed Bruno into the side of the garage hard enough to damage the brick. He slumped into the ground and didn't move.
"You're almost as annoying as those damnable Thunderers," muttered Dr. Gaunt.
He opened his belt buckle and pushed a button. And disappeared.
Masks V, Part Six: A Distorted Tale
As the Thunder Family is my version of the Marvel Family, Dr. Gaunt is my version of Dr. Sivanah. While Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana was usually played for laughs, in many of the old stories he was quite sinister, and in all of them he was quite mad. He would casually kill or endanger thousands to billions of lives to further his own ends.
Template scowled at this vanishing act, sighed, and came over to the limo. She opened my door and looked at me.
"Are you hurt?"
"Ng..." and some twitching was all I could manage.
"I better get you out of this thing before it turns into a giant robot or something," Template muttered, reaching into the car.
"In... side," I said, voice a bare husk of sound, rolling my eyes toward the door. "Hall. Kitchen."
She didn't bother with the buckle but simply uprooted the end nearest her, slipped the belt off me, then lifted me in her arms as if I was a child. No surprise, there. She could probably juggle safes. She was careful how she held me. No surprise, there, either. Supers had had their careers ruined by being sued for sexual assault in such situations.
Sunset Sam was in the kitchen, making a huge sandwich. He gaped at us for a moment, then hurried out. Template lay me on the lounge. She pulled what looked like an ordinary cell phone out of a belt pouch and dialed 911. She was just starting her report when Sam returned, with Sid and Carol in tow.
Carol may look like she's part horse, but before her powers manifested she was a medical intern. She checked me over and, once she could get Template's attention, asked what had happened to me.
"I don't know the specifics. Dr. Gaunt did something to her. Paramedics are already on the way."
I was feeling incredibly frustrated. I could barely move, and while I could whisper, a little, the closest I could come to talking at anything like full volume was inarticulate grunts. I couldn't even change my form. Still, that was an improvement over five minutes earlier. I fumed, and waited. Like I had a choice...
"What happened to your nose?" said Carol, looking at Template.
Template gingerly rubbed her proboscis and scowled at the blood on her hand.
"It's nothing. Not even broken."
Carol sighed, pulled a paper towel off the roll, moistened it in the sink, and used that to wipe Template's face clean.
"Already stopped bleeding, looks like," she said, handing the towel to Template.
"Told you it was nothing," Template said, using the towel to clean her hand.
The police and paramedics arrived about then, guided in by Sid. The uniforms told Template that Bruno was still outside, being worked on by another team of paramedics and watched by other police. By the time the EMTs finished checking me I was able to sit up and talk; I later figured out that my regeneration, low level that it is, allowed me to recover more quickly than most people. The paramedics then checked Template, declared us fine, and left. A detective arrived as they were heading out and took our statements - mostly mine - and left, the other cops following.
I looked up at Sid, well past shock setting in.
"I can't believe this happened in our own garage," he said, shaking his head.
"I repeat my offer," said Template, flatly, leaning back against the counter by the sink, shapely ass tucked under the rim, arms folded under her perky breasts. Of course, any or all of that could have been clever padding. "Tell me what you know and help me and my allies find Dr. Gaunt."
Well, that wasn't quite the offer she'd made at Jimmy's place. And she was still stealing glances at my chest. Not to mention sneaking looks at the other women. Not to say they weren't look-worthy, especially since some of them were currently in their working clothes. I smirked, as I thought of something.
"Let me change into something more comfortable first."
I leaned back, arms over my head, stretching, and felt a surge in sexual attention towards me, most of it from Template. I held that pose for a moment, my generous breasts threatening the buttons of my silk blouse. Then, still leaned back, I shifted to my base - and quite male - form. I could feel her libido do a figurative backflip. Definitely a lesbian.
"Ooh, that was wicked," said Carol, snickering.
"Is pulling stupid little pranks on someone trying to help you more important that being helped?" Template snapped. "Because I've seen shapeshifters before. I teach some, and work with others."
Okay, that fell flat.
"Just pointing out that you shouldn't make assumptions about people," I muttered, in a lame recovery attempt.
"I don't know why you're so hostile towards me. I don't really care. I just think that if we pool our information we might be able to help people."
"Why are you mixed up in this?"
"Among his other crimes, Dr. Gaunt is suspected in the murder of Angelo Bertollini and the kidnaping of his wife."
"Oh..." I said, deflating some. I sighed and scratched my head. Definitely too much hair spray for this form. "I don't really know much. That's why I was at Jimmy's. I thought he might know something, since he used to work for Dr. Gaunt. Evidently, he did. Probably too much."
Template sighed, then started looking around the room. She targeted the notepad and pen by the phone, and spent a few seconds scribbling.
"There. That's the numbers for the Planetary Guardians, the Bay Area Guardians and the Intrepids. Any of those places can forwards a message to me. And if there's another attack, either of the Guardians teams can have someone here in under half an hour. Or even notify supers they know in this area."
"Hold it!" I said, as she turned to leave. "What happened to sharing information?!"
"You just admitted you didn't have any," said Template, looking puzzled.
"But... I came clean! You owe me!"
"What I owe you," said Template, slowly and carefully, obviously furious and trying hard to keep herself under control, "is protection from people like Dr. Gaunt. If you want more than that you'll have to earn it."
She stomped out of the room.
"Wow," said Sid, staring at me. "You sure know how to be diplomatic around someone who can punch out a tank."
"Oh, stuff it, Sid."
* * *
"Mmmmm, you have such warm hands," I purred, as Steam Heat gave me a back rub more erotic than most lap dances.
Unfortunately, her idea of a clever rejoinder was a girlish giggle. Yvonne was one of my favorite people in all the world, but she's not the brightest bulb in the box. Also, while the fireproof covers used on the beds in the "hot room" were supposed to feel like satin, they always made me itch. Still, that was a minor detraction from the massage.
I smiled and lifted my head to say something to her. The world tilted, and she giggled again, just before rolling up her eyes and collapsing sideways onto the bed. I thought this was odd, but felt too sleepy to pursue the matter. So I lay my head back down and passed out.
* * *
I came to surrounded by strangers. Paramedics were working on me, police searching through the blackened rubble which surrounded us. I hurt.
"Where..." I managed.
"He's awake," one of the paramedics called out.
I was hooked up to IV bags. A lot of them. I was already worried, and starting to feel scared.
Detective Munroe came over. He was keeping a carefully expressionless face.
"Can you tell me what happened, here?"
"Don't... Where am I?"
"Your brothel," said Munroe, with a brief twinge which might have been nausea.
I fought to sit up, to look around. My own weakness and the paramedics forced me back down. I did see that I was on a stretcher, and what little of my body was visible was burned, some of it badly. Munroe crouched down beside the stretcher and stared at me.
"I... remember feeling dizzy... seeing one of the girls pass out... then nothing." I looked around as best I could, frightened, and not for myself. If this burned out wreckage was the Fantasy Works... "Where are the others?"
"We only found four of you alive," said Munroe, looking genuinely sad. "Two of those have already died. We haven't identified the other survivor, yet. They aren't sure she'll make it."
This couldn't happen! We were all supers, even Sid! How...
"Gaunt," I whispered.
"Looks that way. But there's no witnesses. All anyone saw was the place go up like a paper napkin under a blowtorch. All of you folks, plus about six clients."
I began sobbing.
* * *
As it turned out, London Broil and Steam Heat had both survived the fire. In fact, they had apparently been revived from whatever had knocked us out, brought 'round by the (for them) restorative heat. Only, when they tried to escape they had their heads blown off by some sort of energy ray. A different one for each.
The other survivor was Carol. She'd been downstairs in the kitchen, one of the least hot rooms, and all that horse hair had carbonized and helped insulate her. Her lungs were in bad shape from inhaling hot gasses, but her long muzzle had reduced that to something she could survive. And, like me, she's a low-level regenerator. It's a mercy that we were both unconscious during the fire and for a while afterwards.
What actually saved us both was that the fire had been so intense, it hadn't lasted long. Indeed, parts of the walls, roof and internal floors collapsed in only a few minutes, bringing in fresh air which reduced the air temperature to something breathable, and allowed the firefighters to get in and put the flames out.
I survived because I was covered in water-based massage gel, lying on a fireproof bed in a heat-resistant room. My regeneration was healing me, now. In a few days I'd be good as new. Carol would need longer, but should also make a full recovery.
Once in the hospital they stuck even more needles into me. Turns out this is standard practice for regenerators these days. A healing body needs a lot of fluids and nutrients, and regenerators heal faster so they need these delivered faster. Unfortunately, most regenerators also need a lot more painkillers, since we tend to metabolize drugs more quickly. I was in a lot of pain, in spite of a self-regulated morphine pump. I wanted to keep my head as clear as possible. There were things to do.
My first visitor was Martha, who was as devastated as I was. She didn't want to go over any of the legal stuff just then, but I insisted. She was surprised as some of the things I wanted done, but agreed they were good ideas. She left to take care of them.
My second visitor was Template, who looked sick with grief.
"I'm sorry," she said, voice barely above a whisper. "We thought Dr. Gaunt might try again, so we had surveillance on the building, but... none of the devices showed anything wrong - still don't - and both of the live people were killed."
She collapsed into the chair by my bed, sobbing.
"W... we failed you. I'm so sorry..."
I didn't have the strength to be angry. Neither did I feel like trying to comfort her. Fortunately, she soon got control, wiped her face, and left without another word.
* * *
I stared at Detective Munroe, silently demanding an answer to my question. He shifted uncomfortably, then sighed.
"Word on the street is that he's looking for you. Or, rather, your female alter-ego."
"Yeah. He didn't know that's a disguise. When he didn't find 'her' he apparently had his people burn the building in a fit of pique."
Even as a woman, I'm not usually a crier. But this was the fifth or sixth time in less than two days I'd broken down in tears. Given the circumstances, I think that's entirely understandable.
"Yeah. I didn't want to tell you, but I didn't want you to think I was stonewalling you, either."
"Why would he do that? What is wrong with that man?"
"He's crazy," said Munroe, with a shrug. "Anyone who frustrates his least whim becomes a fanatically hated enemy. And you've frustrated him three times."
"First at that house, when his henchmen didn't kill you, too," said Munroe. "He punished them but needs them alive, so he saved most of his wrath for you. He also wanted to know if you knew anything important to him. The second time was when Template rescued you. That's also your fault, in his eyes. The third time was when he couldn't find you in the b... building."
"I hate to say this," I told him, slowly and deliberately, "but I think this is one time the supers are right. After I get out of here I'm going to meet with them and see what I can do to help them bring this guy down."
"If you can, more power to you," said Munroe, seriously. "That guy's killed more people than anybody short of Hitler. Whom he claims was one of his henchmen."
"My God," I said, slowly shaking my head. "What sort of world do we live in, to have such evil in it?"
"Officially there were no survivors," said Munroe. "You and the horse gal are here under fictitious names, and only the people actually treating you know what your injuries are. Hopefully, Gaunt will still be busy looking for Lorraine Hawthorne. We may leak word 'she' is somewhere we can set up a trap."
"Take my advice and leave that to the supers," I told him, sincerely. "Or at least work with them. This guy is dangerous even for them to handle."
"You've got a point," said Munroe. "I just hope my superiors see it."
Masks V, Part Seven: Bureaucrats and Bounders
So, here I was, in downtown Los Angeles, standing outside the gate of a super hero headquarters. I sighed, and pushed the buzzer.
"I'm Lawrence Hawthorne. I'd like to speak to Template, please."
I half expected some confusion, or dithering. Apparently, though, the fact that I knew to ask for her meant I was allowed to speak with her. The gate opened, and a pretty young thing in a private security guard uniform escorted me inside.
I was welcomed by several members of the Guardians, including the Guardsman himself. Template wasn't there - she was in San Francisco, it turned out - but would arrive shortly. Another benefit of being able to fly under your own power.
We moved as a group to a meeting room, where the Guardsman and a couple of the others made small talk until Template arrived. Then I got immediately down to business.
"I want to help catch Gaunt," I said. "That son of a bitch has killed people I love, for no reason except childish expression of frustration. But I don't know what I can do."
"What you can do is draw him out," said Template. "Be a decoy. Bait."
I glanced uneasily around the room. They all seemed in agreement. I didn't know if they'd talked this over in anticipation of me deciding to help, or they just thought like this all the time. I didn't find either prospect reassuring.
"You attend the funeral of your business partner as your female alter-ego," said the Guardsman. "Dr. Gaunt will know it's a set-up, of course. We'll have people there and you will be bugged and watched, and he'll counter all of it and kidnap you. Then it'll be up to you. You'll have to escape and contact us, somehow."
I nodded, feeling a bit light-headed.
"All this depends on him not knowing I'm a shapeshifter," I pointed out.
"Mad geniuses - all super intellects, for that matter - have some peculiar blind spots," said Template, as if speaking from personal experience. "This guy especially. He never questions his assumptions, and if anyone else does he reacts... emphatically. Given how easily he captured you before, he'll probably be overconfident."
I nodded again. I knew from my own personal experience just how hard it was to hold a shapeshifter. That is, if it wasn't known the prisoner was a shapeshifter. Special precautions would work, but only if they were made. If Gaunt and his people thought I was just an ordinary human, escaping would be almost trivial.
"Your mission has three objectives," said the Guardsman, as if giving orders to some sort of special operative. "Learn and relay to us the location of the base. Learn what Dr. Gaunt's immediate goals are. Secure the safety of any other prisoners long enough for us to get there and rescue you. In that order of priority."
They gave me the equipment and showed me how to use it. We then went over the details for more than an hour before they relented. They appeared satisfied we were taking all reasonable precautions. I wasn't, but I was too depressed and angry to care. I left, knowing what I needed to do.
* * *
"Excuse me, Guardsman," said the chief of security at the Planetary Guardians headquarters, shortly after Hawthorne had left. "There's are some men here - one a representative of the state court and another from the governor's office - who wish to see you."
The two men were, on the surface, quite similar. However, closer examination showed that one wore a suit several times as expensive as that worn by the other. As well, his smug grin seemed vaguely familiar. They introduced themselves. The slightly shorter man was an agent of a state court. The one with the expensive suit was an aide to the governor. They didn't offer to shake hands.
"Are you the individual currently holding the position of America's Guardsman?" said the man in the more modest suit, formally.
"Yes," said the Guardsman, feeling even more wary, now.
The man handed him a folded document.
"What's this?" said the Guardsman.
"Read it," said the man in the more expensive suit, his smirk growing more self-satisfied.
"It's... an injunction against our acting - as a team or individually - against Dr. Gaunt."
"And similar injunctions are being delivered to every other team in the area, as well as every independent we could locate," the man declared. "There will be no super battles in this state as long as our administration is in power."
"Did you deliver one of these to Dr. Gaunt?" said the Guardsman, folding the document and staring the man in the eye.
"Don't be facetious. We don't even know where he is!"
"Then how will you stop him and his cronies from running rampant?"
The Guardsman raised an eyebrow, stared at the man for a moment, then turned and walked away.
"Wh-what's that supposed to mean?!" the man shouted at the Guardsman's colorful back. "You think just because he's a criminal we're going to excuse his crimes?! We're cracking down on all you freaks!"
* * *
"So, how does this affect our plan with Hawthorne?" said Template.
"Only in the details," said Mesa. "Instead of members of the two Guardians teams standing watch, we ask for volunteers from elsewhere. We should be able to get most of the Thunder Family to participate, no problem. In fact, him expecting us and getting someone else could help. Dr. Gaunt has used telepaths in the past, and the Thunderers are supposed to be hard to read."
"Not only did they go to all the trouble of getting these injunctions out to the regional teams," muttered Tiger, changing subject slightly, "the idiots bragged about it at a press conference. Now, when the press screams 'Where were the supers when we were dying?!' we can say 'Don't you watch the news?'"
"You'll never convince me that most of the masks who got those won't go into action anyway," said Template. "They may wait a while, but they will go into action."
The Bay Area Guardians were still letting her stay in one of their guest rooms. Classes began at the school in less than two days; she was giving herself that long to help with the mess involving Dr. Gaunt.
"I imagine most of them will hold out until the administration caves," said Mesa. "Seriously; we're all pretty fed up with them. The registration, the harassment, the refusal to accept court decisions in our favor..."
"It's that bad?" said Template, startled.
"Yeah. Even though the current state administration is the other party from the President's, and frequently lambasts him and his staff about their attitude towards supers, theirs is pretty similar."
"They sure made my life miserable, for several weeks after the registration passed," said Tiger. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. "They arrested me - outside my home, as I was getting ready to leave for work, in front of my wife and child and sundry neighbors - for not revealing my legal name when I filled out the form. I tried explaining that I legally changed my name to Tiger twenty years ago, but they wouldn't listen. I asked them, if they didn't have my legal name, how they found me; they said they looked in the phone book. Idiots. TAL finally had to get a federal court to file a cease and desist order."
"Which only made the politicians madder," Mesa added.
"And this from the other party," said Template, astounded. "The one condemning President Thurlin for his actions against supers."
"Politicians tend to be elitists, no matter what their stripe," said Tiger. He gave a tired grin. "And, trust me, I know stripes. Elitists truly, madly, deeply hate anyone who is demonstrably better than them. Because they have based their world view - their entire psyche - on being better than others."
"Ah, you're just an anarchist at heart," said Mesa, laughing. "All cats are."
Tiger was about to say something when the come screen on the wall lit, showing NightMist.
"We have a situation."
"What's going on?" said Template.
"Dr. Gaunt's struck again. You remember that Nevada politician who sarcastically praised him for removing a 'den of sin' from the state? His office - that whole part of the state legislators' office building - is gone."
"Gone?" said Template, shocked.
"Disintegrated, most likely. Witnesses say a beam came out of the sky, straight down, and a big section of the structure just... vanished. In a huge puff of smoke. Or, more likely, dust. There's a big gap in the building, going down well into the bedrock. Dozens of people missing and presumed dead."
"You don't suppose he... teleported them?" said Template, looking ill. "Or maybe dimensionally displaced them?"
"That's possible," said Tiger. "But, knowing Dr. Gaunt, unlikely."
"Hold on," said NightMist, raising his hand. "Got something coming in."
An image of Dr. Gaunt appeared on the main screen.
"He's overriding all local TV broadcasts. Cable included."
"As if I would ever do anything to benefit this benighted state, which has aided and abetted the theft of what is rightfully mine!"
He glared at the camera for a moment, gave a curt nod, and the regular programming came back on.
* * *
I don't like funerals, and not just because I've seen so many of them. I've never liked them. I also hate wearing black. Yet, here I was, at a funeral for my friend Sid, wearing formal black, including a veil. I felt deeply gratified at the turnout. Even though I knew many of those attending the services were supers in disguise.
When the minister finished I turned and walked towards my car. I didn't want to stay and socialize, which also fit the ploy the supers had devised. I was almost back to the Corvette when I felt a slight sting on the back of my neck. I rubbed the spot, noticed a small bump, figured it was a bug bite and dismissed it. Until I walked past my car instead of stopping and pulling my keys out.
I was soon flanked by two tough-looking men in mourning clothes, who helped me into a nondescript SUV with deeply tinted windows. They sat me beside Dr. Gaunt, who began chuckling in his weird way as soon as the door was closed.
"So, we meet again," he said, smirking at me. "You should know that I always defend what is mine. The more people like you try to deny it to me, the more determined I become."
The driver began turning the large vehicle around. As the front of the vehicle swung past the slowly-dispersing crowd my frozen gaze swept over many faces, me silently crying out for help but unable even to move my eyes. However, something must have tipped off my watchers. There was a cry, and several flashes of light accompanied by muffled thunder as person after person shifted from a mundane appearance to something more than human.
I was astonished. I had expected supers, but not what appeared to be the entire Thunder Family!
"Ah," chortled Dr. Gaunt, rubbing his hands together with a dry, raspy sound. "Excellent. And just as anticipated. Oliver! The Absorbascon!"
An oversized sunroof opened, letting light and air in. Behind me I heard a hydraulic whine, and sensed something moving. The Thunderers were just taking to the air when what looked by green lightning bolts shot from them and to the van. Or rather, to whatever had lifted above its roof. The noise was literally deafening, leaving me dazed and in pain, but still sitting motionless. The Thunderers fell.
I heard Dr. Gaunt shouting triumphantly, but it was muffled, indistinct, as if from a great distance through cotton. I felt something warm and wet running down the left side of my face and realized my eardrum had broken. Both of them, in fact. Gaunt scrambled excitedly over the back of his seat in a manner most inappropriate to his apparent age and began fiddling with something. I saw the driver and the other man in the front seat remove ear plugs.
After a few moments, Dr. Gaunt leaned back over the seat, shouting and making emphatic gestures. He appeared ecstatically happy, from what I could see out of the corner of my eye.
Speaking of eyes, I now had tears running down my face from both of mine, due to the pain and despair.
The SUV Drove off, leaving the bodies of at least half a dozen people smoking gently in the morning sun.
Masks V, Part Eight: Revelations
The drive took hours. During this time they thoroughly - and enthusiastically, taking advantage of the situation - patted me down and scanned me with various gadgets and removed all the tracking devices. Each was placed in a different flying drone which was sent in a unique direction. Then the SUV turned onto a state route through the desert and towards the mountains. The pain in my ears slowly subsided, thanks to my regeneration, but now the back of my neck was itching like some mad thing. And my bladder was overfull. Sitting there, motionless, with all that plus the knowledge I was worse than helpless before these men was the worst torture I've ever endured.
We finally drove down what appeared to be an abandoned road to the entrance of what appeared to be an abandoned mine. The decrepit old boards blocking off the opening rose deftly out of the way and we drove into a large, dimly-lit cavern, full of vehicles. The gate came down behind us and the overhead lights came on, casting a garish, steely blue glow over everything within.
Again, I began moving without volition. Once everyone was out of the SUV Dr. Gaunt went around to the rear of the van and supervised the removal of something he referred to as "the storage unit." I couldn't see what they did, but heard noises implying something heavy being moved. Moments later three of the henchmen - whom Dr. Gaunt watched like a cross between a mother hen and a concentration camp guard - slowly maneuvered a low cart holding a large, metal box with heavy electrical connections past me. He spared me a moment, lifting my veil with one hand, taking my chin with the other and turning my head left and right to peer at my ears. I couldn't resist; couldn't even move my eyes to keep his face centered.
"It seems we will have to wait to question her. No matter. She'll keep. Put her in a holding cell. And make certain that's all you do."
That last was said in the same mild tone as the rest, but it gave the other men in the chamber a strong, negative emotional jolt. Recalling how Gaunt had acted towards me and some of the things I had heard about him, I realized there was now no way these men would take further advantage of my helplessness. I actually felt a brief gratitude towards the bad Doctor. Of course, that faded, as I remembered I wouldn't be helpless if not for him.
I walked into a modern freight elevator, with what looked like stairs going down the wall behind it, and stopped at the back, before turning to look at the others getting on. I had by now spotted which of them was holding the device which was controlling me. He stood beside me as Dr. Gaunt guided his men in wheeling the cart onto the elevator. He was fussing with it almost obsessively. The gates closed and we began to descend.
The next level down the elevator stopped, and all exited but two of the men - one of whom, of course, had the controller - and me. The gates closed again and we resumed the descent. Several more levels later the gates opened and I walked out, into a hallway lined on both sides with sturdy cell doors. I walked down the hall as one of the men moved ahead to open a door. Then I walked into the cell and lay down on the bed. The door closed, and the men walked away, talking quietly between themselves, speculating on what Dr. Gaunt was going to do with "all those matrices."
My ears had completely stopped hurting by now, but my bladder was insisting on attention and the itch at the back of my neck was about to drive me mad. Finally, I couldn't take it any longer and clawed at the offending spot with my right... hand?
I felt something under my fingers even as the realization that I could again move on my own dawned. I sat up, and brought the object around, the itch now fading rapidly. It was a small, metal needle, glinting silver in the dim light of the cell. My regeneration had healed it out. Now, if only they didn't have cameras watching me...
I stood and performed a quick exploration of the cell. It was a simple cube a bit more than two meters on a side and with a bunk mounted solidly to two walls and the floor. In one corner was a rectangular depression in the floor with a drain. I wouldn't have recognized it as a toilet except for some time spent in Japan. I gratefully relieved myself then completed the examination of my prison. The door was solid, except for a barred opening about the size of a hardback book. Peering between the bars as best I could, I decided that the hall was empty.
I stripped, shoved my clothing out through the bars - leaving the veil, hat, stockings and heels behind - then shifted into a pigeon, the smallest form I could manage. I flapped clumsily up to the opening, squeezed through, and dropped to the floor of the hall. I shifted back to Lorraine and dressed, then began looking through the doors of the other cells.
Three had inhabitants. One was long dead. One was completely unresponsive. One was Sarah Bertollini.
"Mrs. Bertollini!" I hissed through the bars.
She sat up and looked around, appearing confused.
"I'm working with the Guardians. I'm here to get you out."
"Oh, thank God!" she said, much too loudly for my comfort.
"Please be quiet," I said, as I examined the lock in the door. "We need to sneak out while Dr. Gaunt is busy with some big project of his."
"But aren't the Guardians here?" she said, still too loudly.
"No, Ma'am. We have to get to someplace where we can call them and let them know where we are."
"But that doesn't make any sense! How could they send you here if the don't know where 'here' is?"
"Ma'am, please be quiet," I said, desperately.
The lock had what appeared to be a fingerprint reader. I closed my eyes and focused on the guard who had opened my cell. I needed a moment to get a fix on him, but to my great relief I felt myself shifting. I tried my thumb, and when that didn't work my index finger. Bingo! I shifted back to Lorraine as the door opened. She was still sitting on the bunk, looking puzzled. She was in a plain jumpsuit of some sort, probably provided for her by Gaunt's men.
"How much do you know about this base? I didn't get to see much."
"I still don't understand what is going on," she said, rising and walking towards the door. "Aren't the Guardians here?!"
"No, Ma'am," I said, firmly. "It's up to us to let them know where we are."
Her expression echoed my own feelings on the matter.
"I'm sorry, but I expect better of the Guardians than this sort of haphazard plan."
"You and me both," I muttered. Then inspiration hit. "But! So does Dr. Gaunt."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Bertollini. "Oooh, that's brilliant."
I didn't think so, but had to admit it had worked so far.
Another print lock controlled the elevator. By now I had the guard's pattern down well enough I was able to just shift the one finger. There was a beep and the light over the sensor turned green. I half expected the older woman I was rescuing to question how this was possible, but she just blandly accepted that putting my finger on the sensor would unlock the control pad. I pushed the lone button and it lit.
The elevator arrived after far too many seconds. Once inside I scanned the control panel. None of the buttons were labeled, or even numbered. I sighed and pushed the uppermost one.
"That will take us to the observation deck," said Mrs. Bertollini.
"Where do these others go?"
"I'm not sure. I just noticed that the highest button went all the way up to the top of the mountain, where there's a lounge with windows all around."
If Gaunt was busy with some sort of experiment, there most likely wouldn't be anyone there, and it probably had direct access to the outside. Through a broken window if nothing else. The doors closed, and I held my breath.
Beep after beep, and lamp after lamp, we rose through Dr. Gaunt's base. I tensed when the doors opened, but saw no-one. I stepped out and took a quick look around. We were, indeed, alone. I summoned Mrs. Bertollini from the elevator.
We were in a large, circular room, with the elevator part of a large column in the middle. There were chairs, lounges, couches and low tables scattered all around. A quick search found no phones or radios, but did uncover an intercom.
"We don't fool with that," I murmured. I frowned and looked around again. "I don't see a door to the outside."
"I don't, either."
None of the windows opened. There were no latches, not even screws or bolts. Even using a heavy chair I couldn't break one. Of course, we were on top of some sort of sheer pinnacle, so even though I could have changed to a hawk and flown away that would have meant abandoning Mrs. Bertollini.
I opened my mouth to ask her something, but was interrupted by a flicker of the lights, and immediately after a heavy jolt. Had something exploded inside the base?
I could hear alarms from below, loudest at the elevator. I moved over to push the button - there was no scanner - when another jolt almost knocked me off my feet. Then came another, even heavier, though further away. And another, and another. These all sounded different from the first; less like an explosion than an impact. Then came a truly huge jolt, which not only knocked the two of us off our feet, but toppled some of the furniture. The lights went out.
"Great," I said, with a sigh, pushing my hair back out of my eyes as I sat up. "No power and no way out except the elevator."
I tried the button just to be sure. No response. I realized the Guardians were right. Only an idiot or a supergenius like Guant would overlook installing an emergency power system for his elevator.
We searched the room again more thoroughly. Nothing. In desperation I even tried the intercom, but it was dead. I stopped and thought for a moment. We weren't in any immediate danger; the alarms were silent, there was no smoke, and without power I didn't see how anyone could even find us here, much less reach us. And those explosions or whatever they were would attract attention from outside. Still, I didn't like the idea of settling in for a long wait.
On a hunch I began walking around the circular column the elevator was in. That was rectangular, and the column round. There might be room for stairs in the shaft, assuming those I had seen in the motorpool cavern extended this high. If I could only find the access.
And there it was. A latch, folded against the curved wall, It's dark, mirror finish barely visible against the dark, polished granite of the column. I pulled the latch out, and a door opened.
"Oh, that's just brilliant!" said Mrs. Bertollini. "Where did you learn to do that?"
"Years of experience," I said, modestly.
There were stairs inside, and emergency lights on. I wondered if Gaunt had built this place himself or taken it over from someone else. Parts seemed to have a very "Gaunt" style while others were rather different. The stairs were a simple metal gridwork with a handrail, zig-zagging back and forth at the rear of the elevator shaft. I noticed that the elevator car was still on this level. Once assured we could reopen the door from the inside, I closed it, then had Mrs. Bertollini hold still and quiet while I did the same and listened. There were some faint, distant sounds which might have been the aftermath of some disaster, but nothing I could positively assign to human agency. We started down, slowly.
At the next door I made her wait partway up the steps while I carefully opened it and peeked out. The dim and spotty emergency lights made it hard to tell what was what, but it was apparently some sort of living quarters, complete with a modern home entertainment system. No sign or sound of anyone. I briefly thought of hunting for weapons or a cell phone, but decided instead to keep descending.
At the next door we followed the same procedure. However, when I pushed something resisted. By dint of heaving repeatedly, I managed to force it open enough to tell that the "something" was a body. One of Dr. Gaunt's henchmen. Peering through the crack as best I could, I saw more still forms. There were no sounds here, either. And no indication of what had killed them. Since we were still alive I doubted it was gas. Knowing Gaunt, he'd wired his whole base to do to these guys what he'd done to the Thunderers.
We descended a long distance over this next stretch. Even before reaching the next door I realized it would open into a large cavern, probably the motorpool. Only, this door was also blocked, and by more than I could move. During a couple of my hardest shoves I though I heard small rocks rattling. Had the roof of the cavern collapsed?
Down again. This time the door opened onto a hallway which was nearly completely dark. I could also smell smoke again.
"This must be where it happened," I whispered.
We stepped cautiously into the hall. As eyes adjusted, we could see light ahead and to the left. This turned out to be coming from around the edges of a sprung door. With some help from Mrs. Bertollini, I forced it open. Inside was the ruin of a large room. And when I say "ruin" I mean that. There were more bodies in here, all showing signs of violent death. All the equipment was wrecked, including what had obviously been a large chamber with a window of heavy steel frames and thick glass - or perhaps something stronger.
The frame was bent outward, and nearly all the glass shards had fallen to the floor outside the chamber. There was a hole in the wall directly across from the chamber, also showing signs of having been forced in the same direction. The light was coming through there.
I picked my barefoot way carefully across the floor, wincing repeatedly as I stepped on some small, sharp thing I hadn't spotted, Mrs. Bertollini following closely behind me.
Through the hole we could see another wall with another, larger hole. And beyond that the bottom of another hole, forced up and out. And beyond that, a glimpse of the outside.
* * *
We needed half an hour to make our way out and up into the cavern. There I saw that a hole larger yet had been knocked out of the side of the mountain. Outside were what appeared to be footprints, left by shoes the size of a dump truck.
The two of us stared for a while. Then I shook my head and began searching through the vehicles for some means of calling for help. I had success in the first one, finding a cell phone in the driver's door pocket. It showed a moderate signal strength, which was a relief. I dialed the number the Guardsman had insisted I memorize. The call was picked up on the first ring.
* * *
"We have them," said the Guardsman. "Our bait just called in. H... She has Mrs. Bertollini, safe and sound, and is in the base. Which is wrecked due to some experiment of Gaunt's. There appears to be only one survivor among the occupants. She doesn't know for certain who that is, but has a strong hunch it's Dr. Gaunt, grown to gigantic size."
"Put it on the map," said Tiger, who, with most of the Bay Area Guardians and a rapidly growing assembly of other supers was waiting in the Planetary Guardians' headquarters for news.
"Yeah, that's where those weird tremors were coming from," said Lucky Buck. "Who did we sent to check that out?"
"Template, Winter Rose, and Atalanta, in one of the Ravens," said the Guardsman. "I'm calling them now."
* * *
Template had met the other two women before, but didn't really know them. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, but Atalanta flew the Raven as if she were invulnerable and thought everyone else was, too. Template was definitely feeling queasy, watching the mountain peaks wheel, rise and fall outside the panoramic cockpit window. Being a guest she was seated in back. She wondered if taking the copilot's seat would have helped. Winter Rose certainly didn't seem bothered by the aerobatics.
Weird, how I never get motion sickness flying under my own power.
A call came in over the radio. Winter Rose took it, then patched in both the Guardsman and Lorraine over their headsets.
"...and that's all we know," said the shapeshifter.
"We'll be there in just a few minutes," said Winter Rose. "Between the seismograph readings and figuring out which cell towers are taking your call, we have a pretty good general location, and from what you say the opening should be obvious."
Indeed, less than ten minutes after the call the Raven suddenly swooped, until the ground and lower part of the mountain filled the window. Then the nose abruptly pitched up for several seconds, the window showing only sky, before Atalanta greased the plane onto the ground with less than a meter of rollout.
Oh, I'm definitely flying back under my own power.
They exited the plane, hurried down the stairs and met the two other women halfway.
* * *
I never thought I'd be so glad to see supers. Even that annoying Template. Mrs. Bertollini and I pointed out the various clues we'd spotted, including the gigantic footprints, leading out into the desert.
"That's straight towards Vegas," said Winter Rose, drooping a bit in the heat.
"Las Vegas," I corrected, absently.
"I'm definitely getting a Godzilla feeling, here," said Template, sounding uneasy.
"Not Godzilla," said Atalanta. "The Amazing Colossal Man."
Masks V, Part Nine: Confrontation
"Mrs. Bertollini, why don't you go first," said Winter Rose, gently. "Tell us what happened to you. It could be very important."
"Oh, please call me Sarah," said the older woman.
"All right, Sarah. Go ahead."
She had to be guided, since she kept wandering off course to relate inanities, but eventually we got the story of her kidnaping and imprisonment. It wasn't pretty, but Gaunt and his men hadn't abused her any more than necessary for their goals. The important part was why they had kidnaped her. After immobilizing her at the hotel room where she was staying ("Oh, I just couldn't stay in that house, knowing Angelo had died there.") Gaunt, smiling, had run a hand-held scanner over her. He looked startled at the results and tried again. Several times. He fiddled with the scanner, tried again, and finally screamed in rage and smashed it on the floor. He had then placed something on her forehead, with a line reaching to a headband he donned. He had asked her a question, and not liked the answer he received through his device.
"He kept badgering me about what I'd done with Angelo's matrix," said Sarah, with a sniff. "I don't think he ever even saw any of those movies."
"Aura said that Tyler has his matrix," said Template. "Tyler told me that your husband had told him he was going to leave him something special."
"Isn't that just like Angelo?" said Sarah, smiling. "He was such a generous man."
I wondered, briefly, who this Tyler was - and what a matrix was in this connotation - but decided that could wait for later. Meanwhile, Sarah was continuing her tale.
She didn't know why they had decided to take her to the base; but then, she wasn't sure why they had forced their way into her room. Even after we explained that Gaunt wanted Angelo's power. ("But I don't know anything about that!") We figured he was going to use her as bait for whoever did have the power matrix. Only he didn't know who that was, and this Tyler person Template mentioned didn't know where Sarah was, so aside from an occasional interrogation, Sarah had simply been left in her cell.
I suddenly had this mental image of Gaunt and Sarah babbling away, both oblivious to what the other was saying and missing the import of the situation because it simply didn't fit their world view. For all his genius, Dr. Gaunt had a knack for going out of his way to do things which only caused him trouble later, usually because he ignored anyone he felt was less intelligent than him (I. e. everyone) and any facts which contradicted his already-arrived at conclusions.
My turn was next, and I succinctly related what had happened from the time I was leaving the funeral to the point where the heroes had arrived. All this was heard not only by the three masks here, but relayed by radio to the two Guardians teams.
"We need to find Gaunt," said the Guardsman, after he had digested all this, "and we need to find out what he's planning to do and how. That means a two-pronged effort. Oh, and we better do whatever it takes to keep anyone from the Thunder Family from engaging Gaunt. At least until we know he won't absorb their power, too."
"We could launch a drone to follow those giant tracks," said Winter Rose. "That would leave us free to explore the base. Aside from that, Template is the only one of us likely to be effective against Gaunt who isn't covered under the injunction."
"There's more on the way," said Green Lace. "There are calls out from both our teams and the governments of Nevada and Las Vegas asking for help. This looks like it's going to be a major battle, and we especially need extra help since neither Guardians team can actively participate."
"No way to get that overturned or whatever?" said Atalanta.
"Our lawyers are meeting with California's lawyers. Everyone wants Gaunt stopped, and even those who approved the injunction are willing to let us fight him out in the desert."
"I suspect some high-placed people in Nevada have been heating the ears of certain California politicians."
"Here come the Thunderers," said Atalanta, looking out the window and rising quickly. "We better tell them what the Guardsman said."
I moved aside to let her pass, then bent and twisted to look upwards through the cockpit window. This maneuver suddenly and disconcertingly reminded me I was still female; and not just any female but the generously endowed Lorraine. I'd been so caught up in events I wasn't just masquerading as Lorraine, I was Lorraine. I'd spent more time in her form recently than any not my base for several years. I sighed, pulled my bra strap back into place, and craned my neck to look for the Thunder Family.
Sure enough, down they came. Super after super, all wearing a variation on the same theme of the original Captain Thunder's colorful costume. The old man himself was in the lead. In spite of my feelings about supers in general, I felt awed. These folks were the real deal, and had been for decades. I started to feel a little better about the situation. Then remembered that if they got near Gaunt, he might absorb their powers.
Template was third out the door but the first to meet them, flying upwards. However, she was tackle-hugged by a teenage boy who seemed very glad to see her. The rest of the Thunder Family landed facing us as we stood by the plane.
"I have an urgent request from the Guardsman," said Atalanta, quickly. "Dr. Gaunt has a way of draining powers from members of the Thunder Family. We don't know if he can do it without specialized equipment, but would rather not take the chance. He asks that you remain here."
"At least he had the decency not to say we shouldn't be involved because we had a reason for vengeance," said Captain Thunder, a trace of bitterness in his voice. He sighed. "Ah, well... He's right. And we're better qualified than anyone else to examine his base and determine what he did, anyway. And maybe how to reverse it."
He didn't sound to certain. In fact, he sounded tired, defeated. Which was the scariest thing I'd encountered in this whole mess. If Captain Thunder was giving up...
"You mean that because you've been fighting him for so long that you're familiar with his methods," said Template, a bit too eagerly, perhaps sensing the same thing I had.
She had her arm around the boy's shoulders. He looked haunted. They all did. Small wonder; if what I'd seen had been as bad as it looked they'd lost over a third of their numbers at the cemetery.
Captain Thunder gazed sadly at her for a long moment, then sighed again.
"In nineteen thirty-eight I came into some money and bought a house in the Rockies," said Captain Thunder. "It had been seized for delinquent taxes. It appeared that the previous owner had just walked out one day, several years earlier, and never come back. The house had a huge library full of weird books and scrolls. And there was a laboratory in the basement full of wild scientific gadgets and arcane artifacts. I already had an interest in such things - they were the reason I wanted the house, actually - yet still needed most of a year just to figure out what the guy who had set all that up had been doing. And another six months to figure out how to try it on myself. And that's how I became Captain Thunder."
"Wait," I said, holding up a hand. "Was the previous owner..."
"Dr. Gaunt," said Captain Thunder, nodding. "Turned out he'd gone to California to try and take back by force something the government there had confiscated after one of his earlier schemes. He worked for five years setting things up, only to be stopped and caught by the Shepherds in early 1938 and put in prison. And ever since he's accused me of stealing his house, land and knowledge."
"We're getting ready to launch a drone to follow Gaunt," said Winter Rose.
"Let us know what you find," said Captain Thunder. "We'll be exploring the base."
"I guess I better guide you," I said, sighing. "But I'm going to need some shoes."
No-one even made a joke about women and shoes.
* * *
"The footprints were still getting bigger as he walked away from the base," said Atalanta, astounded, as she stared into the display. She gave a nervous laugh and shook her head. "Don't these guys ever learn? It's right there in the villain's handbook, page sixty-three: Don't turn yourself into a giant creature.'"
"Gaunt wrote that book," growled Winter Rose. "Or at least was a significant contributor. He knows all the loopholes. If he's doing this, he has a good reason to believe it's to his advantage."
The gigantic footprints reached a railroad, a single line of twin rails running ruler-straight through the desert, and turned left to parallel them. Towards Las Vegas.
"The drone's found him!" said Atalanta. "Wow..."
Dr. Gaunt walked calmly through the desert, thirty meters tall, following the train tracks. Though he did not step on them, the earth displaced by his steps pushed the tracks up and to the side when his right foot came too close.
Las Vegas knew he was coming, of course. Between the seismographs, 911 calls and super warnings, they had to. The governor was mobilizing the National Guard, but Gaunt would be well inside the city before they could act. Fortunately, both Nevada and Las Vegas itself had supers, who were not affected by the California injunction.
First up were the Sure Thing. This was a casino-sponsored team, commercial but with a good reputation and including a pair of real heavyweights among the half-dozen members.
They lasted under a minute.
"My God..." said Template, voice a bare whisper, as she watched the slaughter in the monitor.
At least some of them were dead. Very thoroughly dead. The rest were at least badly injured, and definitely out of the fight.
"Guys," said Atalanta, over the coms, "I hate to rush you but Gaunt just wiped out the Sure Thing with barely a break in stride. Looks like he's less than an hour away from Vegas."
"I'm going out," said Template, determined. "I'm faster than any of them were. I should be able to stay out of his way, and maybe come up with something. Even if it's just harassing attacks."
"I'm coming with you," said a female voice, over the com. "My powers are different from those of the rest of the Thunderers. Gaunt shouldn't be able to absorb mine."
* * *
We had just entered the room with the destroyed, windowed chamber when the call came in. I wasn't sure why they had given me one of their spare coms with the shoes Winter Rose found for me, but was glad I could at least keep up on what was happening.
When that one gal in her late twenties volunteered to help, I noticed that the others exchanged glances. My empathy was definitely picking up mixed emotions, including anger and resentment.
"Elizabeth, you don't have to do this," said Captain Thunder, moving to her. "You don't have anything to prove..."
"I'm Thunderstroke right now. And this isn't about proving anything. That maniac killed my father!"
"And my son," said the Captain. He sighed. "All right. But please be careful."
She nodded, quietly, then flew off.
* * *
Template and Thunderstroke flew along the tracks at better than Mach 1. They began slowing when they saw Gaunt's head rising above the horizon. He was even larger, now, perhaps topping 35 meters.
"Okay," said Thunderstroke, when they could talk over the wind noise. "I have a special attack which takes a few seconds to prepare. Something I can do from a safe distance. But I'm gonna need someone to catch me afterwards."
"Yeah. I'll be tapped out. Won't be able to fly. Just hold back a klick or so and watch. You'll know when to act."
Template didn't like the idea, but the other woman presumably knew her own powers and she had been at this a bit longer than Template. She slowed and watched as Thunderstroke continued on, rising to stop high above Dr. Gaunt. He didn't seem to notice.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Template felt a strange prickling, tickling sensation. The hairs on her head began to stand out. Gaunt noticed this; he looked up, apparently saw Thunderstroke, and crouched down, as if to spring. Only the lightning struck first.
Template had been impressed with some of the electrical displays her niece had put on. This dwarfed those. It was a full-sized lightning bolt, only it came from a clear sky and it lasted for at least five seconds. Template shied back, shielding her eyes.
Then it ended. She saw that Gaunt was down; not fallen, but on elbows and knees, obviously stunned, smoke rising from his colossal form. She looked up and saw a small figure, falling, and raced in to catch Thunderstroke. Template was surprised to find in place of the costumed hero a woman of similar appearance in civilian clothes. She was extra-careful catching her.
"Are you hurt?" said Template.
"I- I'm all right," the woman gasped. "Just... takes a lot out of me. I'll need a few hours before I can change back."
Already, she was recovering. Thunderstroke twisted around in Template's arms and looked back at the fallen giant as they flew away. She shook her fist defiantly at him.
"You've been thunderstruck, bastard!"
Unfortunately, that did not defeat Gaunt, but only bought some time. Within seconds he was stirring, and soon stood. He shook himself, looked around to try and spot the source of the lightning, and when he couldn't, shrugged and, with an expression of determination on his face, resumed his march towards Las Vegas. He seemed to be muttering under his breath. Over her com, Template heard that there were plans underway to intercept and ambush Gaunt. She decided to take Thunderstroke back to the base then join the effort.
Template could see supers arriving in air and ground vehicles and under their own power, placing themselves in a line between Dr. Gaunt and the city. She hoped they would last long enough for her to deliver Thunderstroke to safety and return. She glanced up at the drone - circling Gaunt at a presumably safe distance, off to the north - and started for the base.
Template landed beside the Raven and carefully let Thunderstroke try her feet. She was wobbly, but could stand on her own. Satisfied her ally wouldn't keel over, she lifted into the air again to return and engage Gaunt herself. She pulled back when she saw Winter Rose waving to her from the cockpit window and heard her calling over the com.
"We just heard from the Guardsman. Both Guardians teams are on their way, plus a bunch of others. They want to assemble here to plot our strategy. We're even calling in some of those already engaging Gaunt to brainstorm in person."
Template nodded, and landed again beside Thunderstroke. Who, after taking a moment to gather a bit more of her strength, said goodbye and went into the base to join her family.
Only minutes later she could see several flying craft approaching. Shortly after that she could see some people flying with them. The vehicles and free-flyers landed, just as some representatives of the Thunder Family exited the base to meet the newcomers.
"How did you manage to get permission from California to participate?" said Captain Thunder, shaking hands with the Guardsman. "Or did you just give up and come anyway?"
"Our lawyers went over the injunction with representatives of the California Department of Justice. The consensus is we can advise and coordinate, but not take direct action. There should be enough supers here without us acting to take Gaunt out. If not, well, we'll deal with the consequences of acting if they dare to pursue the matter."
"Okay!" said the Black Mask, once that was out of the way. "We need an update, please!"
Template had known that the Guardians were calling in the Intrepids, but not that they were already in the area. She was very glad to see the Black Mask, Rapscallion, Jet Jaguar and - especially - Colossa. She managed to hug the last of these, but only for a moment. She was being called on to relate the results of Thunderstroke's attack to the newcomers.
"Her effort did hurt Gaunt," said Template, finishing up. "Just not enough."
"Well, at least he's not truly invulnerable," said Mesa. "That means we have a chance."
Masks V, Part Ten: Justice
"This guy is dealing out major damage," said the Guardsman, to the heroes assembled there in the desert. "Don't engage him unless you're at least class eighty in resilience. You can still help without getting yourself killed."
Template was impressed. This group wasn't as big as the one which had assembled to help the school, but they'd had a lot less time to put this together. There was no central organization gathering them; the word had gone out and those who could make it had showed. More were arriving, but with Gaunt making steady progress towards Las Vegas they needed to field some heavy firepower now.
"Who's that in the black outfit, who came in you folks?" said Template, quietly, to Steel Lace.
"That's Tiger," said the armored woman.
"Since when does Tiger wear a costume?"
"It's a battlesuit, designed just for him by Ike Kenniman," said Mesa, smiling and nodding.
"Oh..." said Template, a bit boggled at the idea of what Tiger in a battlesuit might be capable of.
Template made a point of going over to the black-clad figure and walking around him, smiling.
"So that's what you look like in costume."
"Very funny," muttered Tiger. "Black may be good for concealment at night, but right now, if this thing didn't have built-in environmental control, I'd be roasting in this desert sun."
"Does it have anything which can help us against Gaunt?"
"Probably not. Which is why I'm staying here and helping the Thunder Family try and rebuild his machine. Maybe we can figure out a way to depower him. He's given himself powers before - though not of this magnitude - and has never been able to keep them, so we have a lot of hope this will be a similar case."
"Good luck," said Template, meaning it. Because they would all be lucky if that trick was managed before any more of them were hurt.
"You, too," said Tiger, seriously. "And be careful. Right now, Gaunt makes Energex look about as dangerous as an angry puppy."
* * *
The assembled supers quickly developed three basic plans, to be tried in succession. Template was partnered with two other super strong flyers, Falcon Eddie and Bombardier. They were to support an effort by Magni. Template dropped the Asgardian off ahead of Gaunt to get in position, then flew back to join with the others.
"Gaunt's muttering something, but I can't make it out," said Template, as they waited for Magni to make his move.
"Falcon Eddie, you've got super hearing; what's he saying?" said Bombardier, puzzled.
"...lamentations, and rivers run red with blood. I shall blot out the sun..."
"You don't want to know," said Falcon Eddie, meaning it.
"That guy needs his own ZIP Code," muttered Template. "He's even bigger now than before!"
"Hey ugly!" Magni yelled from where he stood on top of a low knoll.
Gaunt looked around, outraged. He spotted Magni and - grinning like a kid about to kick over an anthill - drew back a boxcar-sized shoe, knee bent, preparing to launch the godling into the stratosphere.
Template, Bombardier and Falcon Eddie flew in and up, hitting Gaunt's shoe and lifting. Gaunt squawked like the base pipes of an outraged church organ as he toppled forward... right into Magni's fist. The punch to his nose actually sent Gaunt past upright and beyond, to crash into the ground on his back. Magni waded out from the cloud of dust created when the recoil from his blow drove him into and below the knoll, destroying it. The heroes cheered as he clasped his hands triumphantly over his head.
Their jubilation was short lived. Gaunt struggled back to his feet.
"Ants," he rumbled. "Mayflies. Gnats. I'll crush you all."
Several heroes tried an impromptu dogpile of the bad doctor, trying to take advantage of his momentary disorientation, but he merely brushed them off. And began stomping. Once the attack had been abandoned he turned and resumed his walk. His nose looked a bit red but otherwise he appeared unharmed.
"Oh, God," panted Template, flying down to the scene of the mayhem. "Oh, God..."
Fortunately, these were all very tough supers. Being driven into the ground had caused some injuries, but only one of them was actually out of the fight. With immediate first aid handled and proper medical help on the way, Template flew back up to join the other two flyers, to watch the next attack.
This consisted of a group of long-range attackers, mixed projectile and energy, in two sub-groups placed on either side of the bad doctor's line of advance to catch him in a crossfire. Dr. Gaunt, unfortunately, spotted one of the groups as they readied themselves. He paused, turning a bit to his right to face that group of supers. They fired, then the other group joined in. For several seconds he was showered with everything they could put out. When the smoke cleared he was crouched down, huddled on the ground, clothing and skin smoking but not appearing damaged beyond a bit of scorching. No-one cheered; they knew better by now.
Sure enough, Gaunt was soon stirring. He stood, gazed back and forth at them disdainfully for a long moment. Then raised his arms and smote both teams with lighting.
"That's Thunderstroke's attack!" said Template, yelling to be heard above the ringing in her ears.
Unlike the physical attackers, only five of the eleven survived this assault, and only three of those were not seriously hurt.
"How the fuck did he get that?!" said Force Master, one of those less hurt, actually screaming over the coms. "I'm out of the fight; most of my systems are down and my power cells are drained. How do we stop this guy?"
The third team - a group with powers or devices which could be used to trap him, shook off their shock and resumed preparing. They surrounded Gaunt and began hitting him with ice, webbing, makeshift giant bolos and several other entanglements. Gaunt simply stood there until they were finished. Then he effortlessly raised his arms, ripping them free, and spread his hands. Multiple energy beams of different types lanced out for the members.
"Guardsman, are you getting this?" said Template, high and well behind the scene of the chaos. "He's using attacks which were just used against him! He's copying what we do to him!"
Fortunately, the heroes had learned caution by now; those who could not leave quickly under their own power or be evacuated by speedsters or flyers were behind barricades. All survived, though some were hurt.
"Half the stuff we hit him with just makes him stronger!" said the Guardsman, watching by video from the Raven he had arrived in. This one was specialized, equipped as a field command post. It was from here he co-ordinated the effort to stop Gaunt. So far, they weren't doing so well.
"Magical energy matrices," said Aura, scowling in intense thought. "Among other things, that must grant him the ability to copy the pattern of any energy attack used against him!"
"Great," said Tiger, groaning over his com, from inside the base. "I bet that includes spells, too. I'm not using my claws on this guy."
"So we just keep pounding him," said Mesa, smacking fist into palm like a blasting cap going off.
"Yeah, like that's worked real good so far!" said Polymer Pam.
"We need to switch tactics," said the Guardsman. "Not just the type of attacks, but their purpose, their application. Don't try to stop him, but delay or divert him until more Masks arrive."
"Hit and run," said Template, quickly. "Every flyer with a physical attack take turns zooming by."
"Exactly!" said the Guardsman, nodding. "Super speedsters can make simultaneous ground level attacks. Wear him down. Delay him, if not defeat him. Give the city and us more time."
"I bet we can do more than that," said Falcon Eddie. "There has to be a limit, if not to his power then to how much pain he can take."
"Don't commit yourselves," said the Guardsman, warningly. "Just swoop past; don't stop. Keep out of his reach and keep on him. Pace yourselves. There's not likely to be a quick solution to this."
Eight flyers huddled in mid-air and quickly plotted. Then they broke, shooting out in different directions.
Seconds later, Template flashed past Dr. Gaunt at just above Mach 1, slamming her fists into the side of his nose as she flew by.
He didn't have time to react. Immediately, Falcon Eddie flew by the left side of his head front to back, raking his claws along Gaunt's ear. Then Bombardier shot by straight overhead, shooting an energy blast down at his right ear.
Next came the giant's left kneecap, then his nose again. The flyers just kept circling, coming in from different directions at different altitudes, hitting a different part each time. Gaunt roared with anger and frustration, and stopped his walk to swat at the insects stinging him.
"Watch it!" yelled Falcon Eddie, after his third pass. "He's getting faster and more accurate with his swipes."
"Now the speedsters!" the Guardsman ordered.
Brightly colored streaks flashed across the desert, most barely able to reach Gaunt's ankles but still able to distract him, to split his attention between them and the flyers.
"Keep it up!" the Guardsman yelled enthusiastically over their coms. "This actually has him stopped cold! Just don't get cocky!"
* * *
Back in the command center jet the boss supers were interrogating Mrs. Bertollini and me while the troops delayed Gaunt. From what I could see on the monitors that's about all they were doing. I didn't need my empathy to know things weren't going well. At least I'd finally found out who this Tyler person was. At Sarah's request he'd been brought to join us outside the base. In person I recognized him, of course. I'd actually liked that show, at least the first few seasons. We'd exchanged introductions while the heroes prepared to attack Dr. Gaunt, and he'd thanked me for rescuing Sarah. Which was something the "heroes" hadn't actually done. (Well, not in so many words.) Now the masks were trying to squeeze any information we had out of us to help with the battle. Of course, with Sarah that tended to take more effort than with me.
"Can you tell us anything more?" said the Guardsman, looking desperate. "Anything which might give a clue as to how to defeat him, or at least what his goal is?"
I shook my head. But Sarah, as usual, had more to say. I doubted it would be any more important than what she usually said.
"I don't know what he plans to do, but he kept complaining about how he'd been denied justice, and that he wanted to get what was rightfully his."
"Yes, we know that, Mrs. Bertollini," said the Guardsman, tiredly.
"Well, why don't you give it to him?"
I got it. And winced over not thinking of it myself.
"Look, this guy honestly believes he's been cheated out of things," I said. "You should be able to use that against him, somehow!"
"But how?" said the Black Mask, sounding desperate.
I frowned, as an old memory came back.
"Don't the Planetary Guardians have the Scales of Justice?"
"How the Hell do you know about that?!" said the Guardsman, the only time I ever heard him swear.
"I used to work for Mack Risk," I said, with a slight smirk. "I remember when he found the Balancer's killer, back in Fifty-Eight. He also found the scales, given to the Balancer by the Spirit of Justice herself. Since Mack didn't know how to contact her or the Balancer's next of kin, he turned the scales over to the Planetary Guardians."
"That might just work," said the Guardsman, with an expression which made his face look the way mine had felt just a few seconds before.
He called Spriggan over, told him what to do. The speedster nodded and vanished.
"Thank you, Mrs. Bertollini; Ms. Hawthorn," said the Guardsman. "You may just have saved thousands of lives. Mrs. Bertollini, that was brilliant."
"Sarah doesn't deal well with the unexpected," said Tyler, reaching over to pat the older woman's hand with obvious affection, "but give her a chance to think things through and she can be Hell on wheels."
I thought about pointing out my contribution, but just didn't have the energy.
* * *
They had Gaunt stopped, but for how long was unknown. He'd actually managed to injure some of both the flyers and the speedsters, but more were on the way. Still, this was just a stopgap; all they were doing was harrassing him. Worse, he seemed to be getting both faster and more accurate, and those big hands and feet counted as area weapons.
More and more masks were arriving, but except for a handful of super-strong flyers and a couple more speedsters they were hanging back. There appeared to be something big brewing.
Sure enough, the Guardsman recalled Falcon Eddie. Moments later, the flyer returned carrying the Guardsman, whom he placed on the ground in front of Gaunt. The flyers and speedsters were called off. The Guardsman held up what appeared to be an set of antique scales.
"Dr. Gaunt! Do you want justice?!"
The Guardsman's bold voice was clearly heard in the silence following the cessation of the attack.
"Of course I do, moron! I have sought justice against those who have wronged me for well over a century!"
"Do you agree to abide by the verdict of the Scales of Justice?"
"Eh?" said the giant, leaning forward, peering down and squinting. "By God; I thought those were lost... Yes! Yes, of course!"
Guardsman held the scales even higher in a dramatic pose. For a moment nothing happened. Template wondered of the Guardsman even knew how to work the thing; maybe there was a command phrase, or something.
Suddenly, Gaunt straightened and made a sharp inhale of breath. There were loud, pervasive crackling sounds, and his skin - even his clothes - turned grey-brown. He wasn't moving.
The heroes shifted uncertainly. Then Humboldt walked up and experimentally rapped on the side of Gaunt's shoe. He looked startled, then grinned.
"Poor quality sandstone."
Further investigation - by several means - revealed that Gaunt had, indeed, turned to stone. Completely. All the way through. Stone so weak and crumbly that pieces were already falling off Mount Gaunt. A cheer began, quietly at first, but then sweeping through the assembly.
* * *
"We still don't know how Angel and Gaunt were connected," said Tyler. He sighed and shrugged. "Probably never know."
"It's not important, I guess," said Template.
They were taking advantage of the Planetary Guardians' hospitality, following the debriefing and celebration. Template needed to leave soon; school started tomorrow and she needed a good night's sleep. Tyler was slowly learning how to use the powers Angelo had bequeathed him.
"I've already started the registration process," said Tyler, sadly. "Doesn't matter that I don't ever plan to wear a costume or act the hero. If you have powers in California, you have to register."
Template thought about telling him about her own waffling in that area, but decided now was not the time.
"How is Sarah doing?"
"Pretty well, actually," said Tyler. "She's back at her sister's. Says she'll sell the house, but I bet she doesn't."
Template had congratulated Sarah on her idea. She'd tried to do the same for "Lorraine" but the shapeshifter had vanished. Template heard later that Hawthorne was retiring from prostitution. As the sole beneficiary of several insurance policies his/her future was pretty much secured. Template hadn't liked him or her, but grudgingly noted that the shapeshifter had been a big help, and shown a lot of courage and determination in a difficult situation.
"Ah, well," said Template, stretching and sighing.
"What?" said Tyler.
"Oh, just wrapping up in my mind." She stood. "Anyway, I need to leave, soon. I don't know if I'll ever see you again, but we'd love to have you as a guest speaker at the school. You can contact us through the Guardians - either group."
"That actually sounds interesting," said Tyler, smiling. "Thank you."
Template bent over to give him an affectionate kiss on the cheek, then flew off.
Tyler Angelo (1927)
Tyler Harrison born 1956 0 29
Caped Angels starts 1963 7 36
Batman begins 1966 10 39
Caped Angels changes 1967 11 40
Caped Angels ends 1970 14 43
Angelo Bertollini dies 2006 50 79
Some Members of The Thunder Family
Mask Name Sex Relation to Captain Thunder
Captain Thunder M Patriarch
Thunder WAC F Matriarch
Hail Storm M Brother, deceased
Lieutenant Thunder M Oldest son
Major Thunder M Cousin, most powerful, started out
as Private Thunder at 15
Thunderbolt F Middle child, deceased
Storm Warning M Youngest son, father of Thunder
Major Front M Nephew
Cyclone F Wife of Lieutenant Thunder
Winter Lightning F Wife of Storm Warning, mother of Thunder Scout
Force Five M Son of Cyclone and Lieutenant
Storm Crow M Grandson, black sheep
Thunderstroke F Illegitimate daughter of Thunderbolt
Thunderscout M/F Granddaughter
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