Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Virtual Prisoner

"I'm glad you could join us today, White Owl," said Dr Sands. "My associates and I are excited that you're here, and we're really looking forward to getting your take on this new project." Dr Sands was a man of medium build, with dark brown hair and a thick beard. He walked quickly down the linoleum tile of the research facility, his dark loafers clicking softly on the floor. We stopped in front of a door with a frosted glass pane.
"I'm just grateful you invited me Dr Sands," I said. "I'm always interested in seeing devices that might help me out of a job." Sands opened the door, and I could see several computer terminals, monitor screens and in the center of the room, a thick wooden armchair stood with a metal helmet in the seat.
I took the scene in and quipped, "Looks like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon."
Sands looked non plussed. "It may LOOK humorous, but I assure you it's the best virtual reality device we can afford."
"So how does VR help the police, or me for that matter?" I asked, studying the layout.
"Oh the VR is to help recreate a Hogan's Alley type of scenario right now. We can program in a variety of scenarios, and in training the officers, help them sharpen skills in determining who's a criminal versus an innocent. Additional uses could be to enhance memory recollection for witnesses.
I stopped him here. "It sounds a bit like the AudioSynchrometer Professor Stowe was working on."
Sands turned at me, surprised. "We used some of Stowe's notes," he admitted. "But I didn't think he'd gotten to a test phase. The poor man seems to have made a fantastic recovery, though he's lost his research grants. Such a pity, to have his own device used on him like that."
I nodded grimly. I thought about Techno, and how his own mind had been completely erased by the AudioSynchrometer. While it had been tragic, the AudioSynchrometer had protected my identity by deleting Techno's brain. "As I recall, the AudioSynchrometer was designed as a teaching tool, but there were some serious flaws to it."
"Strictly speaking, this is a completely different device," said Dr Sands. "Instead of being able to plant or erase memories, all this does is provide memory enhancement and works on developing reflexs and decisions." I nodded.
"Would you care to try it out?" asked Sands.
I hesitated a moment, but this was why I was here. "All right. Will it take long?"
"Oh no, we can do this in thrty minutes or so. If you'll sit here?"
I sat in the leather chair and watched as Sands settled the helmet on my head. He adjusted the helmet until it felt snug. "Is that comfortable?" he asked.
"Just great!" I said. "What's the scnario?"
"Lets just do something simple," said Sands. He stepped to the control panel and twisted a few dials. From the corner of my eye, I could see Sands at the panel but all of a sudden, downtown Queen City appeared. I stood at the corner of the Fountain, and could hear the rush of water as it spashed in the basin.
In the helmet, I heard Sands say, "Go ahead and interact White Owl. If you want to fly, the VR will compensate. But we are using you and several others to calibrate the device.
I looked to my left, and could see people standing and milling down Central Avenue. I took off, and watched the crowd move down and away from me. I headed up Central to Fifth, amazed at the detail of the simulation, down to Happy Harry's Hot Dog cart. I cut around Fifth and headed west, watching as the city unspooled beneath me.
As I climbed higher, I noticed a subtle change as the buildings and features of the city became less distinct. I made a mental note to alert Dr Sands to this flaw. I think it was only because I had years of being at bird's eye level that I would have noticed it in the first place.
"This is definitely cool," I said. "Is there more that it can do?"
"Wait for it White Owl," chuckled Sands.
I passed the museum center, then headed toward Broadway, and the theaters. But on Sycamore, I heard a police siren wailing and banked that way. At Sycamore and Broadway I saw police cars, lights flashing as a robbery was occuring at the Fifth Federal Bank. One policeman was down, and another was exchanging bullets with the robbers. They were pinned down at the door, and I could see hostages in the bank.
I swooped around to the back of the robbery, and pulled a smoke grenade from my belt. The glint of the steel ball caught one robber's attention and he turned. Startled, he fired two bullets from a snub nosed .38 at me. Two bullets blazed past on either side, and I smelled the acrid ozone as the hurtled by. With a bit more confidence, he lined up a third shot. I saw a muzzle flash, and flet something thud into my breast. I put my palm against my chest . A flattened lead slug lay there, its inertia spent.
Angered, I dropped the smoke grenade and the plaza in front of Fifth Federal became a blanket of dark fog. Amidst the sputtering and coughing, I dropped a net ball, and scooped up the robbers, pulling them into the air. I swung out over the plaza and dropped them in front of the SWAT van.
Captain Don Winslow, pushing a shock of sandy hair from his forehead and smoking his perpetual Laramie stepped over. "Nice work, White Owl," he said in his broad Kentucky drawl.
"I believe these are yours," I said, waving a hand at the net full of bank robbers.
"Yeah, yeah, you bag 'em and I get stuck with all the paperwork." The not-quite Winslow smiled broadly in an eerie imitation of the original and I felt a shudder running down my spine.
"Seriously, you did well, good lookin'! Why don't you take the rest of the day off," suggested Winslow. I realized then that he wasn't the real deal My relationship with Winslow is professional and perhaps paternalistic, but he's never been one to stress how I look.
"All right, that's enough for now White Owl," I heard in head, almost like a telepathic summons. I placed my hands on either side of my head and pushed the VR helmet free. The sunny Queen City morning melted away to the flourescent lighting of Dr Sands' laboratory.
I took a deep breath, feeling like I was coming out of a long slumber. "Welcome back," said Dr Sands, standing next to me. I looked over at him. Did he seem taller; more substantial somehow? I put it down to confidence in his demonstraion.
"How was it?" he asked a bit nervously.
"Exhilarating," I replied honestly. "It was truly remarkable. I almost felt like I was in Queen City." I gave him a wry smile and Dr Sands chuckled.
"One point though," I asked, still smiling. "You weren't trying to kill me were you? What would have happened if the bullet had penetrated, rather than flattening against my body armor?"
Sands deflected my question by giving me an appraising eye. "I didn't know you wore body armor," he said. "How do you hide it under that skimpy uniform?"
"That's my little secret," I replied. "But what about my question?"
Sands shrugged. "Assuming the safety protocols are in place, then no, you woulnd't have been hurt. This is a teaching tool, not a killing device White Owl."
Satisfied by the answer I nodded. "Well thank you Dr Sands. It was a truly interesting afternoon. If we're done here, I'll see myself out. See you soon!" I turned and walked out the door and down the hall. A moment later, I was in the darkening streets of Queen City. The streetlights were just coming on. I leapt into the air, flying toward my Victory Park home. I planned to feed Daisy, then begin my evening patrol. I was going to head toward River's Edge and check out the Evo Rocker concert security, then on to patrol the rest of the city.
I banked over Germantown, on my way home and spotted the flashes of gunplay near the Kleine Koenig brewery. "No rest for the weary," I muttered, turning to go tackle the issue.

I flew into the brewery, shocked at the firefight going on. The gunmen were in their car, trying to get out, and shooting it out with brewery security and the police. This could only end badly I knew. I scanned the area, and located one of the brewery delivery trucks near the loading dock. Apparently the firefight had distracted the loading crews; the docks were empty.
I swooped down underneath the truck, then with some effort, I lifted it on my back and shoulders, flying it slowly toward the robbers. I hovered for a moment over the robbers' car, and watched as they scrambled into the lot. I dropped the truck at that point, watching in satisfaction as the car just crumpled beneath the weight of the truck.
"We'll take it from here, White Owl," said the police officer behind the wheel of the black and white. I flew back into the night, curious how I had managed to lift a delivery truck. Normally I would have difficultly even picking up a full sized car.
I flexed my muscles and headed toward Victory Park; after all , Daisy could be VERY demanding. But somehow I found myself in the theater district. Just ahead of me was the contemporary arts center. I was startled by a blaze breaking out in the building. The flame was in at the 20th century art section and threatened to destroy a traveling collection of art by Liechtenstein, Duchamp, Mondrian and others. Realizing I had to act, I dove through the glass skylight on top of the art center and tried to roll. Somehow my body refused to bend and I crashed miserably to the floor.
"I guess that truck stunt took a lot out of me," I muttered, picking myself up. The blaze hadn't hit this floor yet. Working quickly, I made my way to the floor where the fire was, and swiftly moved paintings and sculptures, sending them to the museum trucks that had backed up, and assisting the museum workers who were trying to move the art with me.
On one trip though, I looked out the window and saw a giant red salamander closing in, attempting to add to the conflagration. Was it one of Hellfire's devilish minions? I couldn't be sure. But the salamander was apparently apparently attending to the hatching of its young, for several smaller salamanders crawled nearby; along with a small clutch of white and orange eggs. Their shrill shrieking and flashing red eyes indicated a great danger to the city. I leapt from the window and attacked the largest salamander, wishing desperately that the fire department would arrive.
In the headquarters of the Superhero Guild, the Troubalert klaxons began sounding. Scirocco looked up from her four hands of bridge and looked at the screen, the afterimages blurring back into one heroine.
"Its a request from White Owl," she said, thumbing the alert. She sent dispatches to Captain Valiant and Danger Woman to assist with a large disturbance. Scirocco brought up the monitor and saw a large robot wrecking fire trucks in downtown Queen City.
"That's odd," said the sexy speedster. "The request came from White Owl's transmitter, but she's not on scene. And the lock on the transmitter doesn't show anyone nearby." Scirocco toggled the dispatch key again. "I hope the Dark Hunter is available," she said.
Danger Woman focused on the giant robot. She opened her mouth to use her "karaoke" powers to sonically shatter the giant robot. But an iron fist slapped her like a mosquito and Danger Woman tumbled back into the curb, upsetting a garbage can. The robot stepped closer, attempting to squash Danger Woman like an ant, but the plucky songbird of Justice felt a pair of powerful arms lifting her out of the way. They flew away from the robot, but its arms lurched out faster than thought and snagged the Stalwart of Order from the air. Captain Valiant gasped, dropping Danger Woman.
The intrepid heroine fell, but Danger Woman used her microphone to lasso a nearby gargoyle as she gracefully swung down the cord and into the street. She turned just in time to see Captain Valiant flying backward at her. The powerful hero struck Danger Woman in the side, knocking them both to the ground. A gas grenade dropped next to them, filling the air with a strong anaesthetic and leaving Danger Woman and Captain Valiant unconscious on the ground near city hall.
As if Hellfire weren't enough, I suddenly felt a powerful vibration against my back. In the shadows, I saw a feminine form and I knew at once who had caused me to tremble...Quiver! She'd been at the Iron Mountain Women's Prison, and I was uncertain how she'd gotten free. But I knew she was capable of manufacturing all sorts of wave energy and needed to be put down quickly.
But as I moved to end the battle, I learned Quiver was working with Bloodhawk. I redoubled my effort, knowing I had to be fast and accurate to take them both down. It was at times like this I missed my talons. But ever since that awful night in St Matthew's, I'd given up anything patently lethal.
"Subject's blood pressure, adrenaline levels and heartrate are all accelerated, Dr Sands. Her EEG is showing both strong alpha and beta wave energy too."
Sands smiled broadly at his assistant. "Just as I planned. Using the basics of Stowe's audiosynchrometer and your enhancements to the helmet, I've placed White Owl into a reality she will never escape. Moreover I've pressed her unwitting brain into my services. And did you see what she's done? She destroyed a police cruiser, the fire department and even her own friends! We're unstoppable!"
"Great work, Dr Sands," said his assistant.
"Oh please Mat," said Sands, pulling off his fake beard and smiling his dazzling showman's smile. "Call me by my real name, Professor Somnos, the master of suggestion!" He clanced down at the leather chair where White Owl still sat restrained, the VR helmet still firmly in place on her head.
"That's it my little pretty," he cooed at his unhearing captive. "Keep on dreaming. Soon Queen City will buckle and the city will be completely open to my suggestions....and my demands.

The night continued to drag slowly. I was certain someone had stopped Artemis in her tracks as she lead her chariot through the inky night. I was equally certain that all the doors had been discarded from the prisons and asylums as Queen City plunged from crisis to crisis.
I lost all sense of time. Though it seemed like days since I'd bid Professor Sands good afternoon, I was positive that only a few hours had passed, hadn't they?
"It's been THREE DAYS!!" Captain Winslow angrily stubbed out a cigarette and turned back from the rooftop railing at One Police Plaza. His dark brown eyes glared at Captain Valiant and Danger Woman. "And you're telling me that your precious Guild has found no way to stop the giant robot that's been wrecking my city, my men and my cars! And to top it all off, you tell me White Owl is missing."
He ran his hand through his thinning brown hair, then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out another Laramie. He flicked the butane lighter and jumped back when a sonic trill caused it to shatter. "Jehoshaphat!" he shouted.
With a pixie-like smile on her face, Danger Woman said, "You really shouldn't smoke, Captain; it will stress out your heart." She put a hand over her own heart to emphasize. "And I should know."
Despite her impudent nature, Winslow smiled. "You almost sound like her," he said wistfully. He crushed the pack and stuck it back into his pocket.
Captain Valiant uncrossed his arms and leaned over the railing with Winslow. "It isn't that we aren't trying to find White Owl, Captain. Dark Hunter says she's on this plane but he's unable to locate her physical location."
"I thought he could see anything."
"Most people do, and the Hunter likes to cultivate that belief. But the truth is, he's limited to the planes he can walk. He's definitely a mystic and he can sense her presence within the 20 mile radius of Queen City. She's alive."
"But he can't give us the street number," Winslow furrowed his brow. "And a street to street search could take weeks, to say nothing of the possibility of her being killed or moved.
Danger Woman spoke up, "Ohio. I could help. I can check with my animal friends!"
"I don't think a squirrel's testimony will hold up in court," protested Winslow.
"Well I think it's a great idea Danger Woman," said Captain Valiant, shooting a withering glance at Winslow. "The animal grapevine has helped us out more times than I care to count." Smiling, Danger Woman strolled across the rooftop, to begin speaking with some pigeons roosting in the sunshine.
"Captain, have you noticed anything unusual about that giant robot?" asked Valiant, sotto voce.
"You mean aside from destroying the city at will?" Winslow thought a moment, then his eyes narrowed. "You've seen it too, haven't you? I thought the robot's fighting moves seemed so familiar."
Valiant nodded. "Every martial artist learns the same combinations, but each one brings something of his or her own style to the combat, making their moves unique. Study them long enough, and even in disguise, those moves reveal the true identity. You find whoever is controlling that robot, and I guarantee you'll find White Owl."
"We don't know enough about the robot, except it seems to come from the riverside areas down near the West End."
"What's down that way?"
"Warehouses, abandoned factories. When this was a booming river town that area hummed. Even after we added rail it was still busy. Now it's not as productive and a lot of buildings are closed. You don't think..."
"No, White Owl's not down there," Valiant said. "That would be too obvious." But I'll bet we find the robot there."
"What about White Owl?"
Captain Valiant leaped over the side of the building and began to fly. "I have a lead I need to follow up with. In the meantime, see what Danger Woman has found out."
Winslow shook his head, and muttered, "Squirrels..."
Captain Valiant made his way to the unused reservoir in Victory Park. Landing near an out of the way tool shed and slipped unnoticed inside. A moment later, Virgil Coleman stepped into the evening. He adjusted his Gems ball cap and glasses, then strode confidently toward the five story apartment building he knew as White Owl's.
He slipped quietly up the stairs to the fifth floor, and rattled the doorknob until the tumblers shot loose. As he stepped into the room he was promptly greeted by a lonely Daisy. She meowed plaintively, but began purring loudly as Virgil chucked her chin. "Hello old girl," he said. rubbing Daisy's soft fur. Virgil could see that Daisy's food bowl was full and the water dish seemed recently filled as well. Otherwise though, the apartment showed no sign of recent occupation.
"I wonder is someones been checking in?" Coleman knew Athena had family in town; but he had no way of contacting them, nor would he risk her identity if he did. Aside from a few cat shaped wrinkles on the comforter, the bed seemed unslept in, the shower was dry, and all seemed undisturbed.
Coleman felt the hackles on the back of his neck rising. He turned but could see no one. A quick glance through the apartment with his superior vision showed no one. He shrugged, then closed and made sure the door was locked behind him. He crossed the living room to the patio where he'd first invited White Owl to join the Guild. But as he got halfway to the sun room, his belt buckle beeped in alarm.
Danger Woman was calling, the robot was back and threatening to destroy the suspension bridge between Queen City and St Matthews. "Thunderation," he said, changing with a practiced ease and eye blurring motion into the familiar scarlet and gold uniform. He rushed through the patio and into the night faster than most eyes could follow. But there was a set of eyes watching.
As Captain Valiant approached the bridge, he saw the rampaging robot had grown even larger, now standing roughly eighty feet tall with both feet planted firmly in the river. The robot's arms were spanning the two stanchions of the bridge, shaking it furiously. Beneath, the deck pitched and rocked; pieces of asphalt flying into the river. One large chunk narrowly missed a tow barge as it moved Pennsylvania coal downriver to St Louis.
"Get the river cleared!" shouted Captain Valiant. "Close it down NOW!" He could see Winslow scrambling and arguing with the Coast Guard commander as they worked to get a blockade into place.
A delicate figure in a dark blue tunic and tights stood on the decking of the bridge, bravely holding onto a support line. Danger Woman drew a deep breath and her hypersonic shockwave hit the robot. The metal chest plates on the robot buckled.
Angrily the robot turned to smash the blue insect, but Captain Valiant blazed by, wrenching the left arm from the shoulder of the robot. Metal screamed as it sheared away and the robot pinwheeled into the river, striking its head on the decking below. Captain Valiant dove into the water immediately behind the robot and swooped under it, bringing it to the surface at a rapid clip. The water pressure further served to wreck the robot's body; shearing off a leg to match the arm.
Valiant set the robot on the empty playing field at Cobra's stadium. He pulled the head free from the body and shouted into the interior, "Where is she!?!"
Mat studied the tranquil face of Dr Somnos' prisoner with interest. Something about the gentle, rhythmic breathing; the soft white silk leotard rising and falling stirred his memory. There was something achingly familiar about this White Owl; he was almost certain there had been some contact with her somewhere, sometime long ago. Her face seemed kind; perhaps she'd been a friend of his before...before...he couldn't remember.
A feminine figure in a gold and black armor landed noiselessly on the roof top. The new fibroalloy was durable, but light and the young woman smiled. Her heads up display indicated three people inside, one female. Stinger shook her head; the life signs on the woman were regular, but weak.
She crossed the rooftop of the small building, finding the air intake ducts and dropping several gas pellets into the air supply. "Hold on White Owl," she muttered. "It will be over soon."
In my never ending night, I found myself captured and chained between two pillars. I raged, trying to break free as Quiver pounded me with powerful shockwaves. The pain was excruciating; I felt my chest caving in. Then Quarrel, her archer brother, fired a flaming bolt; hitting my shoulder and I felt my entire left side go numb. I drooped to the side, falling, falling.....
Mat felt warm, and a bit of anger rising as he studied the dials, and witnessed the destruction of the giant robot. "Professor Somnos! The subject's heart rate is increasing, becoming very erratic but definitely stronger!: His voice was tinged with anxiety.
Glancing up from the monitor, Somnos replied, "Of course it is. We've never smoothed out the feedback circuits. When that big red idiot destroyed the robot, the feedback into White Owl must've been overwhelming!" He raced across the floor, twisting dials and throwing switches, trying to counter the feedback pouring into his most unwilling subject.
"Help me, you fool. How do we shut this down without killing her?" Somnos' voice was also overly anxious.
"How should I know?" asked Mat.
"Because you DESIGNED it," shouted Somnos.
"I thought you said some guy named Techno did that."
"You ARE Techno, or WERE! She erased your memory!"
Mat looked at Somnos, confusion in his eyes, and he began pounding the sides of his head. "I can't remember!!!!" Then he pushed the big red button marked :RESET SIMULATION.
I saw bright lights above me, and a familiar face...Valiant? No...it was Quiver and Quarrel. I broke free of them and shot away from them, finding myself back at Fountain Plaza. I flew past the Fifth Federal bank, and realized how indistinct everything looked at this angle....almost like...
Like Sands's virtual reality setup! I was still trapped! Putting my hands up I reached for the helmet and the VR feed, unable to distinguish if I was actually moving my hands or not.
Somnos looked at the VR chair and shouted with horror. "She's breaking free Mat! Do something." Mat smiled gamely at the Professor.
"I don't think so, sir," he said. "You've pushed her, provoked her and made her do unspeakable things. I for one want to see what she does to you. Mat broke from the room, grabbing a sheaf of diagrams as he ran. He paused long enough to see an angry vision in white rising on steady legs and crossing the floor.
"SOMNOS!" I shouted. "I should have suspected, you weasel!" The lanky professor stepped back, babbling in fear. I should never have had that much influence over him, but he actually cringed as I drew near. I didn't have the heart to beat him down, and he surrendered, bawling like a small child.
I turned to get his assistant, but noticed he was gone, along with the sheaf of papers and the VR helmet.
The weekly meeting of the Guild was lively, to be sure. I got ribbed well by the whole host of heroes, though Valiant and Danger Woman were a little less mean about the roast. Later, Val and I were alone in the trophy room.
"I wish I could have stopped them both," I said.
"I wish it didn't happen," said Valiant.
"I just feel so dumb. Maybe I'm not the avatar of wisdom."
"Did I ever tell you about the time Moragana sent me to the Ice Age? I walked right into her spell that time. We all make mistakes Athena, the trick is to grow from the ones you survive. And you DID manage to save yourself."
"Yes, but I'm not sure how. Something caused Somnos to panic."
"Dark Hunter said he couldn't find anything."
"No offense, but Dark Hunter couldn't find his hat after the dinner tonight. And it was on his head." Val laughed, a merry tone.
"No," I continued. "There was something or someone else there. And I have a feeling there was someone at the apartment too."
"Well, I wouldn't worry too much Owl, whoever it is seems to be on your side, if not at your back."
I nodded. "I just would like to be able to thank them."
"And how would you start?" asked Val, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Like this," I said, drawing the world's most powerful man into my arms and kissing him deeply. What follows after that is really no one else's business.
The End...

Who is Tarot?

Nelson Abercrombie, also known as the Amazing Abercrombie, stepped out onto the pavement in front of his magic and novelty store. He glanced up at the gloomy gray skies and shivered. Apparently a cold winter was settling into Queen City early this year. He pulled a dark, shabby fedora over his thinning gray hair and turned back to the door. Abercrombie set his briefcase on the step and turned the lock in the key of the shop, then pulled the metal shutters over the doors and windows.
It wasn't as though he was worried about robberies, but Abercrombie got a discount on his insurance for his precautions, and he needed every penny he could save. The store was all he had now, bookings had dropped off markedly after the accident that had lead to his divorce.
As he shuffled along the street to his small apartment, Abercrombie mused on his failed fortunes. "I used to play with them all," he thought. "I taught Copperfield and Henning, and played with Wilson, Brodean and Fortescue. Now, the Amazing Abercrombie is all but finished, with no one to remember him."
He stopped at the mailbox, fearful of the bills and collection notices. But he saw an envelope with a return address he hadn't seen in months. "Emeritus Agency? Could it be?" With a trembling hand Abercrombie tore open the letter.
Inside was a contract, requiring a signature and a small check for travel expenses. "A week in Zenith?" he asked incredulously. He carefully read through the contract, his eyes growing larger with each provision and the total sum to be paid.
"This is it!" he shouted. Abercrombie half danced up the flight of stairs to his apartment. Throwing open the door he ran to the cage where Mr Hops was wiggling his pink nose and contentedly crunching the remains of his morning carrot. "We have a job, Hops! This is the beginning of Abercrombie's return to fame!"
"Keep it down!" shouted Mrs Stewart from the apartment across the hall. "And for God's sake, clean out that damned rabbit's cage!" Abercrombie shut the door, grumbling about Mrs Stewart. After heating a can of soup, he dutifully began cleaning out Mr Hops cage.
That night, he lay in bed staring at the few posters he had remaining from his touring days. "I must confess, I am no longer the slim man I once was, Hops," he said to his rabbit. "Perhaps, my old friend Clyde would extend me a bit of credit for a new suit? After all, one can hardly perform in a shabby cardigan and khaki pants."
The next morning, Abercrombie left early and walked past his store to the Race Street establishment of Clyde Wickersham, tailor. After nearly forty minutes of negotiation, fuss measurements and finally showing the contract, the fussy Scotsman agreed to make three new suits, complete with secret pockets and linings for Abercrombie's act. "Ah must be daft," said Wickersham. "But I'll bill you at the first o' the month. An' I'll be expectin' payment in full, Nelson."
"You shall have it my friend. Word of honor!" said Abercrombie, charging the door.
I was standing outside the door when a heavyset man with thinning hair nearly ran me over.
"Oh my dear! I am SO sorry," he said, offering me a hand up from the sidewalk. I smiled.
"My fault, I'm afraid. I wasn't watching where you were going." The man stopped, then cracked a smile.
"Nelson Abercrombie, at your service," he said. "But I am better known as..."
"The Amazing Abercrombie," I finished. Abercrombie looked at me with shock.
"How..how did you know?" he demanded.
"I'm Athena Nikos," I introduced myself. "My uncle is Harry Forte."
"Fortescue? Oh of COURSE!" He pumped my arm so hard I was afraid I would start spouting water. That's when Mr Wickersham stepped in.
"Hadn't you better be tending to your act, Nelson?" he asked with an amused smile.
Abercrombie stopped and smiled. "You're right Clyde, I need to be ready in less than a week!"
I watched as the chubby man walked briskly up the street. Turning to Mr Wickersham I said, "I thought he was retired?"
"Och he was, but someone hired him for a week in Zenith, starting next Monday. I agreed to make him some suits for his act, to be paid after his contract was fulfilled." When I looked at him shocked, Mr Wickersham snorted and added, "Ah'm not completely without a heart y'know Ms Nikos."
"Oh I never said you were. Shall we step inside? I have some concerns about the cold weather that's coming and I want to know what you can do to help me."
Two nights later I was flying over the city, warm and snug. Mr Wickersham had fitted my costume with sheer tights, meaning my legs stayed warm, and he'd worked together a warm leather jacket to keep my upper body comfortable. I had to learn how to fly in this new getup, and was taking a practice run over the city. To the west I could see the high, dark clouds coming, swollen with rain. I looped west toward Kosterman's Hill, where the rain finally caught up, then back over the northside. I doubled back over towards downtown, inorder to give Mr Wickersham the report on my new gear when I saw the flashing red and blue lights. Normally I would have ignored them, but I recognized the gray Dodge Charger of Captain Winslow. I landed in the alleyway behind the crime scen tape and tapped him on the shoulder.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Oh it's you, White Owl," he said with a scowl. "I was just about to send for you."
"Why is that?" Looking over his shoulder, I could see the crime scene techs and the coroner making careful measurements and examining the victim.
"Looks like a homicide," I said.
"It's more than that, Owl," said Winslow. "We think its another one of your costumed crazies."
"Why do you say that?" I asked. "Do you know the victim?"
"His wallet identified him as Nelson Abercrombie, age 60. He ran a novelty and magic store over on fifth, and sometimes worked kiddie's parties as a magician."
My blood ran cold. "Why do you think this is a costumed crook?"
"Because of this." Winslow slid an evidence bag at me. Inside I could see a strangely sized card of some sort. But I turned it over to see the image of a man with a rod over his head. On a table in front of him, were a cup, a sword and a coin.
"Number One, the Magician," said Winslow.
"Tarot Cards?" I asked. "Abercrombie was a stage magician. And this card shouldn't have attached itself to him." I looked up at Winslow. "Do you remember how it was placed in front of him?"
Winslow looked at me with dismay. "Face up, if that's what you mean."
"No, Tarot has different meanings if it's upright like this," I turned the card over so the magician was on his head, "or if its reversed, like this."
Winslow took out his cell phone and scrolled through some of the images on it. "Here," he said, shoving the phone at me. "What's it mean?"
The card was reversed. "Generally, ineptitude, or failure of the will. Someone is telling us that Abercrombie was an inept magician.'
"What do you know about this guy White Owl?" he asked.
"Not as much as I will tomorrow night. But I do know he gave up performing about ten years ago. Some horrible accident that left an assistant maimed, and ended with his divorce. I guess he moved here to Queen City around that time."
Winslow nodded. "Could be someone out for revenge, or money? The assistant or her family?"
"I don't think so, this is deeper. Abercrombie didn't have much money until just recently. Someone's been keeping an eye on him, and I intend to find out who."
Winslow ran his hand through his steely gray hair. "I guess it wouldn't do me any good to say be careful. Just keep in touch willya? My doctor says I'm not supposed to have too many big jolts in my life."
"He probably also says you're not supposed to be smoking like you do either," I said flying into the sky. "But I'll be careful Captain. I promise."

The week following the death of Nelson Abercrombie was terribly frustrating to me. Mr. Wickersham was almost inconsolable, and served as a pallbearer for Abercrombie. I attended the funeral, despite having only just met the man again. Uncle Harry sent his regrets, but he was working through a six month stay in Branson, and couldn't get free. So he asked if I would stand in, as his one time assistant and family representative.
The funeral was simple, and I recognized some of the local members of the magic community from their reputations. They served with Mr. Wickersham as pallbearers, and I worried that one of them might soon be joining the late Mr. Abercrombie.
Somehow, though they all made it through the funeral, and I departed with Mr Wickersham from the funeral. We drove in silence toward the downtown, and Mr Wickersham's shop. "Ah Lass," he said, his Scot's burr becoming more pronounced. "Mah friend is gone, m' goodwife the same. Ah'm all alone in the world, with nothing t'show for it."
Trying to console him, I said, "You have me Mr. Wickersham. And you've been wonderful at assisting me in my crimefighting."
He turned his deep brown eyes at me, and scowled. "Well then, lass, you'd best be puttin' our talents together t' find Nellie's killer and soon." I nodded.
He took me to the shop and we entered the back way. Mr Wickersham had a small hotplate in the back and soon we sat at a table drinking strong tea and eating butter cookies. I waited a few moments, then asked, "Did Abercrombie have any enemies? Anyone who would benefit if he were dead?"
"I don't believe so. He wasna that good a magician; so he had no tricks anyone wanted. His wife had left him several years ago; and there were no children. Aside from that small shop, I'm afraid Nelson lived on his laurels. But surely the police have asked all those questions?
"And more I'm sure," I agreed. "But the element here is cui bono." At this Mr Wickersham nodded.
"Who benefits? I'd say you need to find that. And find out where that Tarot card fits in." I finished my tea and stood up.
"Be careful lass," Wickersham warned. "I lost an old and dear friend this week. I'll not bear up if I was to lose another dear friend."
"I'll keep to the shadows for now, and if not, then your NuSilk ought to help out." I let myself out the front door and caught the bus back to Victory Park. I took the elevator to the fifth floor and let myself into the apartment. Daisy nearly bowled me over as I came in, then she led me to the kitchen to show me her empty cat food bowl. She mewled angrily, and danced a happy dance when I opened a can of catfood to set before her.
While Daisy was eating, I went upstairs to my bedroom and changed from my funeral attire to the more comforting wear of White Owl. The cold hadn't abated yet, so I shrugged into my jacket as well. I came down the stairs, snugging my mask into place and reaching for my tool belt and cell phone when the phone rang.
I snapped open my cell phone. "White Owl," I said. "What do you have, Captain?"
"Two more kills, Owl. One in Northside, near Abercrombie's magic store, and one in the zoo of all places." My jaw dropped open.
"Are you sure they're linked to Abercrombie?" I asked.
"Yeah, we're sure. Why don't you come down to my office. I'll spot you a coffee and go over the notes with you. Though I know you'll want to see the scenes too."
"You're right about that," I said. "But it won't hurt to see what the CSI squads have determined. I can be there in about thirty minutes."
"OK, I'll be looking for you then." I slipped the phone off, and sat on the sofa, disturbed. Daisy sidled up to me, looking for comfort, and I gave her an absent-minded headscratching as I gathered my thoughts. Slipping into my boots, I rolled the cuffs flat, then stepped onto the balcony. The wind was light, but chill, and I shuddered a bit, burrowing into my down-lined leather coat. I jumped into the wind, then angled away from Victory Park and headed toward Midtown. I arrived on the rooftop, to find Captain Winslow waiting for me.
True to form, he had two cups of BigElk coffee waiting, with mine rich and dark. I sipped it against the cold and followed the captain down the stairs into the warmer police station. Winslow didn't lead me to his office; instead we headed toward a conference room where several photos lined the table. Winslow grabbed three manila folders from the table and turned to me.
"This one is Abercrombie's" he said, laying it flat. "Nothing in here you haven't already seen. I nodded and Winslow continued. "This one is Dejuan Brown." He handed me the folder and I opened it.
I studied a photo of a young dead postman as Winslow continued. "Brown was the mail carrier on Abercrombie's route. He'd just finished up the first part of his run today and was at the relay box loading his bag. A bullet took him in the back, killing him instantly. This was about eight o'clock this morning."
"Did anyone see anything?" I asked.
"No, but CSI said the shots must've come from from a rooftop of one of the buildings on the corner. We've checked out both the bank, and the drugstore on the corner. The weird thing is this shooting was no more than a hundred yards from Abercrombie's store."
I studied the images more, noticing a small screen in the middle of the street, with a Public Service truck behind it. No one seemed to be working though. "What about the Public service guys?" I asked.
"We checked with them. Two of them were under the street, checking the electric and gas lines. The third guy was on a coffee run. Dispatch from Public Service backs that story. But they didn't see anything or even hear anything."
"So how is this related?" I asked.
"Well April Scott was on her way to work at the drugstore this morning, and found Brown then. She called police, and when our guys arrived, she showed them the card she'd found as well. This one."
Winslow slid a card at me. It showed a young man gripping a rod and proclaiming something.
"The Page of Wands," I said. "Someone knows his Tarot."
"What do you mean?"
"The Page of Wands indicates a dark young man, a faithful man or lover, and a postman. This card was selected particularly for Brown, I would think. But why was HE selected?"
"Well if you think that's odd," said Winslow. "You should see this one." He slid the final file toward me. Inside were photos of what had been a lovely young woman. Her face had been mutilated, apparently by the large birds of prey shown in the remaining photographs.
"Her name was Janelle Rush," Winslow said. "She was 29 and was the head of the aviary division at the Queen City zoo. She was also engaged to Dejuan Brown. So these two crimes would be linked even if we didn't find a Tarot card there." I knew what it would be before Winslow handed me the evidence bag.
"The Nine of Pentacles, wasn't it." He looked at me shocked.
"Well it makes sense, Captain. Abercrombie was the Magician, Brown the Page of Wands. So it follows that Ms Rush would be the nine of Pentacles. Pentacles indicate abundance, the nine indicates success and accomplishment. I'd say that described Ms Rush." Winslow nodded.
"So does this mean we're looking for some crazed maniac intent on killing 56 people at random, until he goes through the whole deck?"
"I don't think so, Captain. I think we're after someone who's got a big plan and may be using this to throw us off."
"Well that's good," said Winslow. "Because we got an unmarked envelope this afternoon. Looks like it was mailed from the main post office, no prints. But inside was this." He slid over one more card. I saw a man in a triple tiered miter, blessing two supplicants.
The Hierophant. The Pope, the High Priest. My eyes shot open wide.
Across town, in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mystery, Archbishop John Celebreze divested himself of his raiment and slipped into a simple black cassock. Once a month, the archbishop took a turn in the confessional, as an aid to those who were not comfortable with the more open confessions offered. Celebreze informed his priests that he was not above the work, and often felt this led him to be more in touch with the episcopate.
After three hours, Celebreze was weary. It seemed that the people of Queen City had a lot of sin to confess. Though the priest knew his people were only human, sometimes it seemed they had a superpowered bent toward sin. Celebreze was about to exit the confessional when he heard the door open once more. He leaned forward.
"Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession."
"I am listening my son, as is God. What sins have you committed?"
"I am guilty of pride, Father. I am seeking to place the city under a reign of terror, while I have my way. I have committed murder, Father. I have been responsible for the death of three people so far, and will have several more."
Archbishop Celebreze was shocked by the confession. "Lord have mercy on your soul, my son," he managed to stammer out.
"No Archbishop, May He have mercy on yours." Three silenced bullets ripped through both the confessional and Archbishop Celebreze. The old priest slumped forward in the booth, with no sound.
The killer slipped the gun back into a jacket and slipped from the confessional into the now enpty sanctuary. Ten minutes later, it was as if he'd never existed.

"Four deaths, White Owl, and we can't seem to find any connection for any of them." Captain Winslow's voice cracked under the strain. "Or rather, we can't find any connection between all FOUR of them. We know Dejuan Brown and Janelle Rush were engaged, but there's no link between them and Archbishop Celebreze, or Abercrombie for that matter.
"I thought Brown was Abercrombie's mailman," I said, into the receiver of my phone.
"Well that's true--but there's no other link. The most baffling part of this is Archbishop Celebreze. He did confessions on a regular basis, true, but no one knew when he would be in the confessional."
"Maybe he was a random target?" I suggested.
"We don't think so. The surveillance cameras at the cathedral indicate the killer waited specifically for Celebreze. "
I knew this to be the case. I'd gone over the footage with Winslow until my eyes started blurring. Now after a night's rest, I was about to go out on patrol, hopefully to allow the facts to gel in my head. "Captain, I'll be in touch," I said as I prepared to leap from my balcony out toward the woods of Victory Park.
"Just be careful," he said as I snapped the cell phone shut and dropped it into my weapons bag. I slid the door shut, and jumped into the air, feeling the rush of wind and embracing the skies like I belonged there. I swept past the reflecting pond, and past the art museum, coming out over the expressway. From there, I flew over Northside, eager to investigate once more . The blinking light of the Public Service truck indicated people still working in the lines under the street, but it also provided me with the rough location of my investigation.
I studied the neighborhood, my eyes sweeping along past Abercrombie's run down Magic and Novelty store to the alley where he was killed. From there, I could see the relay box where Dejuan Brown had met his end. I studied the rest of the neighborhood, and could see nothing noteworthy. There were several small stores, a small parking lot, a bank and on the corners an old Presbyterian Church and the drugstore.
With the outline of the neighborhood in my mind, I flew up to the rooftop of Mr Abercrombie's store and looked again. Over the rooftops, I could see the roofs of postwar houses, compact, some run down, but still with cosy charm. A block away, I could see the electric relay station, and could hear the power humming in the quiet night.
I frowned. Something was wrong; I was missing something. But I wasn't going to get the answers here. I kicked off the roof and flew toward the cathedral.
Late night in a cathedral can be an interesting, or a frightening place. Some things are never fully closed at night, even if the locks on the doors are turned. Our Lady of Mystery was such a place. The Cathedral had been built by the German immigrants to Queen City in the mid 1800's and they built in the Gothic tradition of their homeland. I landed on the high belltower, shooing a small fock of pigeons from the large bell. A trapdoor opened easily beneath me and I glided down the stairs toward the floor. The church was still open, but the confessional was still taped off. Guttering lights from the votive candles lit the room, casting weird shadows all over the walls.
I landed on the balcony above the confessional, and studied the layout. The cameras had shown the killer walking inside--sitting well to the side of the camera's view--almost like he knew how far the camera could pan. I glided down and lit on the floor, moving to the pew where the killer had sat.
A hymnbook sat backward in the pew. Curious, I picked it up and the book dropped open to a marked page. A pasteboard drifted from the hymnal dropping onto the floor. In the flickering light, I made a snatch at the card, and missed. I dropped to my knees, and reached for the card. My hand made contact with a large ring under the front pew.
"How curious," I thought as I pulled the ring. A trapdoor lifted easily, and a dark pit showed beneath. I left the trapdoor open and grabbed the small maglite from my pouch. I found the errant card, and smiled. The High Priestess. "A keeper of the sacred wisdom," I said. "If that's not an invitation to my death, I don't know what is." I tucked the card into my pouch as well, and stood up to look around the empty sanctuary once more. Mary's weeping image gazed lovingly down at me, but aside from that, all was silent.
I aimed my light down the hole, and found the small ladder attached to the wall. "This is probably nothing, " I thought, "but there could be something." I began climbing down the ladder, expecting to find a stock of old robes, or Christmas and Easter decorations.
As I reached the bottom of the ladder, I found a small closet, and a door. I turned the knob on the door expecting to emerge into the fellowship hall, but instead I stepped into another room with another door and another ladder down.
I aimed the camera down the ladder once more, then decided to climb down. When I got to the bottom rung again, I found myself in another small room. I twisted the knob of the door and it swung open on a small hallway. Stepping out, I heard my boots echo on the dark tile of the floor. Along the hallway were several doors to the left and right. I looked into one and found a bed, and a small desk. The door was labelled St John. Further down I found St Clement, St Paul, St Augustine, St Francis. On the other side, St Teresa, St Elizabeth, St Priscilla, St Catherine. At the head of the hall was a door that stated St Genesius. I stepped to the door and listened. I could hear nothing; so I turned the knob and entered into a large room, well appointed. On the walls I could see a pair of masks, Tragedy and Comedy. A small statue of Kokopelli was on the desk, and a strong stench of musty cigars filled the air.
I heard a footstep behind me and turned to look. But before I could see, I felt something hit me in my thigh. An electric jolt followed and I danced in pain from the shock. I looked down to see a jesters wand pull back, leaving a needle in my leg. I looked up into the face of an angry clown, then crumpled to his feet like a wet dishcloth.

My head was throbbing in pain as I woke up. My arms were outstretched, as were my legs and I could feel the cold metal on my back. I felt restraints on my wrists and thighs, leaving my legs dangling at strange angles. I didn't need to look to know the bonds were secure. My host and I had a long history. Lifting my head required an effort, but I managed to look into the grinning rictus of my captor.
"Hello, Sterne," I managed to say. "What's your game this time?"
James Sterne, better known to the world as the Buffoon, waggled his cigar in a poor impression of Groucho Marks and said, "Only a big score and influx of cash White Owl. I'm gonna tunnel into dat bank in Nort' Side an' steal all da money. An' no one is gonna know how I done it."
"Not true Sterne," I said, "I already have it figured out."
"Wha?" The cigar nearly dropped out of his mouth. But he swallowed hard and said, "How did you do it?"
"The police are looking for a murderer. I was too, until I tried to see how all these murders were related. And they ARE related."
Sterne frowned. "Yeah but da cops aren't anyt'ing near as bright as you, Owl. Dey won't figure it out until AFTER I've skipped town." He moved to a control panel. "An' YOU won't be tellin' 'em anyt'ing because you're gonna be da next an' last of da Tarot killin's."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You're tied to a really big wheel," he began. "An da floor below you is gonna slide back in a minute. Queen City is built over da Mill Creek, it still flows underneat' downtown, an' right under dis cathedral."
The Buffoon pulled a lever and I felt a brake release. The wheel began to slowly rotate.
"At one point, da church used water power to generate power for da big pipe organ." Pulling another lever I watched as the floor dropped away beneath me. Below, I could hear the running of the water of the Mill Creek. The flow was still strong and deep, depite all the years of being channelled and re routed.
The Buffoon moved the levers with the skill of a heavy machine operator and I felt the wheel turning slightly then the contraption lowered toward the river.
"Since da church ain't usin' da water to run da organ no more, I left it on slow, White Owl. I figure it'll take .25 rpm. Hope you can hold your breath because it's gonna take about two minutes for you to come round to da top again!
The water wheel hit the creek and I felt the flow of the current pushing at it. Then the water covered my right boot. I shvered at the cold rushing flow against my bare leg. The Buffoon laughed, then departed. I felt myself turning at the water's current, to the 2 o'clock position, then the 3 as I was drawn downward.
I pulled at the restraints on my wrists and legs, but couldn't pull them free. I felt my left hand duck into the water and I trembled from the cold. I was headed toward the water myself and I drew a deep breath as I went in.
As children, Alex and I used to play "How long can you hold your breath?" at the swimming pool. He had always been the record holder, but I knew I had a pretty good lung capacity too. The wheel moved slowly through the water and the disorientation of being upside down added to my fear. I calmed myself as I moved slowly through the inky wet cold of the Mill Creek.
I forced myself to think. Buffoon may have been a criminal mastermind, but he was hardly a genius. There had to be some way out. I flexed my leg as it crossed past the wall, then hung upside down in the air. That was my way out! But I had to be patient.
The two minutes passed slowly and in my calmer state, I was able to hold my breath. Still, my lungs were fiery as I broke the surface and I gulped air like water as soon as my head cleared. My right leg was just passing the other wall though, and I swung my foot at the ledge.
"Now hold it, Owl, hold it!" I grimaced as my toehold held. My strength kept the wheel from moving too muchand I pressed back with all the energy I could focus. But the pain in my foot was excruciating, and I wasn't sure I could hold it. I heard a deep rumble beneath the wheel though, and felt the axle sieze.
CrrrrrraaaaaaaCCCCCKKK!!!!! The wheel popped free and dropped into the creek. I landed face down in the water and felt myself sinking into the smelly brown water. But the axle's breaking had also damaged the wheel and I was able to slip free from the restraints, flying out of the water and landing back on the side, gasping and sputtering for air. I came to my feet, then sat back down, as my toes were swollen and in pain from the effort. I leaned back, easing my foot and trying to overcome the pain. With a great effort, I rose gingerly to my feet and launched myself skyward. I had to get to Northside.
The screaming pain in my foot had subsided to a dull ache by the time I landed on Mr. Abercrombie's magic store. I scanned the neighborhood, realizing the Public Service truck was still parked where it had been earlier that evening. I swooped down to the truck and smiled.
The phone nuber wasn't the same as the electric company used. I wondered if Winslow's men had used the truck rather than the phone number in the book to verify information. I knelt down the open access hatch and could hear digging in the distance. I dropped into the hole, landing lightly and favoring my right foot.
I could hear coarse language and rough language in the distance, and I glided up the access tunnel toward the glowing lights. I could see the Buffoon and three henchmen setting charges against a concrete ceiling.
"Boys, taking money that isn't yours is naughty thing," I said, reaching into my toolbelt.
"Holy Cow, pally! I thought you got rid of her!" said Martin. (I told you I had a long term relationship with the Buffoon.)
"Well I guess I didn't!" said the Buffoon. "Get her!"
I tossed a gas grenade at them at this point and heard the sputtering and coughing that indicated it was working. A moment later, it was silent. I slipped in, cuffed the felons and called Captain Winslow.
"So how did you figure it out, Owl?" asked Captain Winslow, as we sat in the ER at Queen City Metro Hospital. "I mean I get that the murders were a cover up for the robbery, but how did you figure out they were related?"
I thought a minute, wondering if I should keep some aura of mystery. Then I decided he needed to know. "It's like this, Captain. Any two of them were related. Abercrombie and the mailman, the mailman and his fiancee, the fiancee and the archbishop. But where were they all related? The only place I could think of was Abercrombie's. He seemed to be the key."
"Go on, don't leave me hanging."
"Well Abercrombie was offered a buyout on his shop, but he declined. Then someone tried to get him out of town. Of course he didn't leave right away, so the Buffoon and his men had him killed. The tarot deck was Abercrombie's and not the Buffoon's But Buffoon saw a joke and a red herring all at once. So he left the magician with Abercrombie and disappeared into the service tunnel.
"But there was a chance the postman had seen the murder. So rather than take any chances, the Buffoon killed HIM too. And his fiancee to keep the message from spreading further."
"But what about the archbishop?"
"The Buffoon was hiding in the lower levels of the cathedral, something that had been built as part of the Underground Railroad and kept secret from most of the parishoners even today. But he was also blackmailing the parish. The archbishop was trying to hide funds that would have been used to payout legal obligations, but the Buffoon knew about them. He killed the archbishop, because Archbishop Celebreze was a man of honor, and wouldn't funnel the funds to the Buffoon."
"Wow! You make it sound so easy."
"Well the tipoff was the utility truck. It hadn't moved in almost a week, and I noticed the number on the truck here, didn't match the number on the power station up the road. That led me to the connection to the bank."
Winslow nodded. "How's the foot?" he asked. "I need a date for the policeman's charity ball."
I smiled. "It's healing. But I won't dance, don't ask me."
He chuckled as we left the hospital, and I swept off into the night.
The End.

All Hallow's Breaks Loose

(If you're keeping score, this is NOT a year one story--so Alex is married to Beth and they have children, I'm still on my own with Daisy and White Owl is an established heroine here. I haven't written a story with the recent Owl in a while and felt this would fit right in...)

Saturday broke with a frosty chill in Queen City. I was currently writing a new book, with a "working leave" from the museum and had decided that for one Saturday, I was going to laze in bed. My other job, as White Owl had been quite busy the previous night. I had rescued a single mother and her children from a tenement blaze, and broken up a gang of car thieves. So when I crawled back into bed at four in the morning, it was with the hope of sleeping in.
I pulled the comforter back up and disgruntled Daisy, (who had been mildly gruntled before then) She stretched, then flopped back onto her side, purring angrily and kneading her paws and claws into my bare leg. I grumbled and made more room for her and she sat up to wash imaginary dirt from her otherwise pristine white paws.
Having thus satisfied the beast, I attempted to drop back into sleep, but the telephone began ringing. I rached over to the nightstand and grabbed the receiver. "Hllumph?" I mumbled.
"Did I wake you up?" came the ever cheerful voice of my brother Alex. I shot a bleary eye at the clock.
"No I'm always up at 7:15 on a Saturday morning," I lied.
"You're lying and we both know it," laughed Doug. "But I'm calling on behalf of a special group this morning. We're going out to Culver's farm to pick out a couple of pumpkins for Nicholas and Gregory. And they said they wanted you to come too."
In the background, I could hear eager young voices shouting "PLEEEEEASE, AUNTIE THEENA!!!" I chuckled, the happiness in their voices warming me and energizing me more than a warm bed and coffee ever could.
"All right, I'll come," I promised, putting my feet onto the cold hardwood floor. Thirty minutes, a hot shower and a couple opf Poptarts later, I was squeezing into the middle seat of Alex's minivan between my nephews Nicholas and Gregory. We giggled and chatted all the way out to Culver Farm, on the north side of the city.
The Culvers had been running a pumpkin farm and haunted house for years, and this year had expanded their little family farm to include a corn maze. We pulled into the parking lot and I helped Alex and Beth unbuckle my nephews from their car seats then bounced out of the van into the parking lot.
"Look at the scarecrow, Aunt Theena!" said Nicholas, pointing at the corn maze. I looked over and saw a sinister looking scarecrow hanging on the gibbet. There was an almost human quality to him that kept my eyes focused. The scarecrow hung still for a moment, then turned and glared at me with an evil leer.
I jumped back startled, "Oh my!" The boys laughed and ran off to the pumpkin trailers with their mother. I kept staring at the scarecrow, almost conviced I'd seen him before.
"He's really good isn't he?" I turned to see Lonnie Culver smiling at me. Lonnie had been friends with my father for years in the small businessmen's club and we still maintained a good relationship with him. "That's Owen Reeves out there. He's a drama major at Queen City University and we hired him for weekends in September and October. He'll frighten just about anyone out of their pants."
I nodded. "He certainly gave me a start, and I'm clear over here." Culver laughed and said, "Nothing that a cup of hot cider can't fix. Come on, I'll stand you for one." Soon I had a warm apple cider in my hand and I was discussing business with Lonnie.
"This is gonna be the last year I think Athena," he said. "With my kids all grown up, there's no one to help run the haunted house and maze. At least not for free. And despite the good turnouts, we're always running just a bit in the red at the end of the season."
"Could you raise admission?" I asked.
"Aw shucks," Lonnie said. "This is a family operation--that's what makes it so popular. We do ok on the pumpkins, but the haunted barn and the corn maze--that brings 'em in too. But we never make a lot there, and most of it is for expenses." He hesitated and I could sense there was something more bothering him.
"I think there's something else, Lonnie," I said.
He frowned. "I'm also worried about the publicity when the paper hits tomorrow morning," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Lonnie just frowned and pulled out a piece of paper from his coat. As I read over it, a chill ran down my spine. The article detailed the disappearance of three young women over the course of the previous three weekends. All three had been out with groups of friends, and then dropped off near their homes. No one had seen them since. The only other link was that all three groups had last been at the Maze and Haunted House. I set the paper down. I had been tangentially aware of these cases, as Captain Winslow fretted over me becoming one of the statistics; but I hadn't been fully briefed.
I handed the paper back to Lonnie and stood up. Alex and the kids were approaching, with each of them carrying a pumpkin as big as they were. I resolved to check into the missing coeds that night.
The trip back home was filled with chatter as the boys described what they wanted their pumpkins to look like and as they described their various thoughts on the pumpkin patch and farm. I listened seriously, but was delighted when we pulled up to my apartment after lunch. My reserves were fizzling a bit. I promised to meet the boys on Halloween to see their costumes and to help hand out candy, the tottered up the stairs and collapsed on the couch.
I took a power nap, and woke up refreshed around four. I did a review of the cases on the Internet, and realized I might do better at police headquarters. I stripped and changed to White Owl, flying into Captain Winslow's office. He looked up as I landed, scowling.
"What brings you in so early?" he asked.
"Connie Davisson, Linda Holzbauer and Mei Nyung. Why didn't you ask for my help?"
"Because we're not sure we're not dealing with anything more than runaways. But the real reason, is this is county and you know Sheriff Lynch isn't too fond of you. I think you intimidate him."
It was true--I was welcome in Queen City and some of the outlying communities. But Stevenson County's sheriff department was the exception to the rule. Sheriff Lynch was none too pleased when I broke up a drug ring that had been operating a lab just outside city limits. We had a lot of minor tussles over jurisdiction, but overall, I thought we begrudged each other our places.
Winslow looked at me and said, "Well County's not sharing with us again. So I doubt I have anything more than you do. Are you coing to investigate it?" He frowned when I nodded. "well be careful and stay out of Lynch's way. And keep in touch, will you?"
"I will, Captain," I promised. I scowled myself and flew out the window. I headed north, as the twilight burned the sky bright orange. I flew over Culver's farm, watching the crowds gather for the maze and haunted house. I could see Owen watching from his Scarecrow perch in the maze, shouting discouragement and taunts to the baffled customers.
Just west of Culver's I saw another farm. I remembered it from the morning jaunt, and swung low. The for sale sign swayed uneasily in the gloaming. The barn door yawed open, with a deep gloom inside. I walked around the outside of the house, and found the cellar door open. Curious, I pulled the door open and flashed my light into the dark of the cellar. Something golden flashed and I entered carefully, slowly walking down the stairs.
My nose was assailed by the sickening sweet stench of putrifying flesh. I gagged back, trying not to throw up. After getting control of my stomach, I stepped into the room. Flashing the light around the basement I saw an abbatoir of human bodies. Five tubs lay on the floor of the basement, with bodies in various states of decay. Three were definitely female, judging from the size. But the fourth one was a male. In a pile of clothes, I found a student ID for Owen Reeves.
"Owne Reeves?" If he were one of the victims, then who was the scarecrow? I called Winslow and gave him my GPS location. He told me it was still in county and not city; but he'd patch it through to the sheriff. I closed the cell and climbed back up the stairs to the fresh air.
The lights were still bright over at Culver's farm. I flew up over the cornfield and got an Owl's eye view of the maze. The lines seemed all but gone, and I wondered if I had been in the house longer than I thought. But then I saw Lonnie Culver closing the gates. Apparently he was done for the night. I gazed back to the Maze and saw the scarecrow climing from his perch and moving away from the exit.
I landed in the field and followed as the scarecrow wove his way unerringly toward the abandoned farmhouse. He paused and looked back, and I wondered for a moment if I'd been spotted. Then I saw him pick up something. No it was some one! He had another coed over his shoulder and was carrying her toward the killing grounds.
I dove at the bastard, clubbing him with my bootheels. This was one of the few times I wished I hadn't given up using the talons. But the bootheels worked well and the scarecrow tumbled head over heels dropping the girl.
I landed between them, and with a roundhouse kick, I dropped the scarecrow to the ground. He flopped once and stopped moving. I swept the girl up and flew her to the the Culvers. Lonnie dropped his jaw when he saw me land.
"Mercy! White Owl? What have you got here?"
"There's no time to explain, call the sheriff; then call an ambulance. This girl has been drugged. I'm going back after the kidnapper." Without a backward glance I was airborne again.
By the time I reached the spot where I'd left the scarecrow, he was gone. But I knew where he'd gone.
I reached the grounds of the abandoned farm again and landed with trepidation. All was quiet. But I saw a flash of light in the barn this time and raced toward it. The barn was abandoned filled with a tractor and several empty stalls and bins. I discounted the bins that were too small for a person to fit into and began checking the stalls. The barn smelled bad, but not as repulsive as the basement. I stopped next to a fertilizer bin and looked into the cabinet there. No one. The upper door was too small, so I didn't look.
I turned my back and was headed for the door, when I heard the faintest creak of a door above me. I looked over my shoulder in time to see a man exploding out of the tiny cramped cabinet. Before I could react the scarecrow had locked his legs tightly around my waist. I raised my fists and beat against them but I felt a powerful hand clamp over my nose and mouth.
"Mmmmmpphhh!!" I gurgled into the cloth. The sickly sweet scent was almost as bad as the basement's stench and I had to fight to keep from breathing the anaesthetic. But the scarecrow pounded his fists and knees into my ribs, forcing me to breathe his noxious poison. My body's defenses fought against it, but I could see I was going to be overwhelmed. I tried to fly, hoping to dislodge the interloper, but instead, I spiralled to the ground, crashing hard. I felt the scarecrow dislodge and on shaky legs, I tried to get to my feet.
But the scarecrow was faster, and I felt him diving at me again, grabbing a spade and I flet the crush of the blade against the back of my head. I crumpled to the floor.
I opened my eyes a short time later. The air was heavy with diesel fumes and as I raised my head, I saw I was chained to a support pillar in the barn. Across the way, the scarecrow was sitting on the tractor. "You'll be my greatest triumph White Owl!" he called. "The world will tremble at the name Effigy!" He revved the tractor up and drove it straight at me, jumping off as it crossed the floor.
I stressed on the chains, but they weren't going to give easily. I braced the floor and pushed back with my feet. The support pillar was too thick and strong to givee way. The tractor kept rolling toward me and I was running out of time. "Have to time this right," I thought. The chains were just loose enough to let me try this stunt. As the tractor drew close, I jumped up, trying to fly. The chains impeded me in part, but I felt myself rising off the ground. I rose above the top of the tractor and watched as the heavy diesel machine crashed through the pillar and the far wall. I dropped from the pillar, and landed, running out into the night.
The tractor was still running, heading toward the fuel tanks. I managed to snap the chains at last, and raced after the tractor. I caught up with it and managed to switch it off before it hit the tanks. I heard a loud crash behind me and as I turned, the barn collapsed from all the damge the tractor had wrought. As the dust cleared, I could see no movement from inside. Climbing down from the tractor, I saw two men in trooper hats approaching. I slipped down and rested by the large wheel ni the back of the tractor. Thank goodness the sheriff had arrived.
"White Owl?" asked one of the deputies. I nodded wearily.
"Sheriff Lynch said to thank you for your efforts, but said you might also want to go back to the city, as the county has laws against vigilantes." I smiled at this.
"You should find the killer in the remains of the barn," I said. "He called himself Effigy."
"We'll get him out, ma'am."
I nodded and flew out toward Victory Park. The morning papers brought the headlines of the grisly murders and of the sheriff's role in solving the case. White Owl was conspicuously absent in the articles. That night, I went back to police HQ. "You did a good job White Owl, it's too bad it will never be officially recognized."
"I'm not in it for the acclain, Captain."
He smirked. "Right, you dress like an escapee from Peter Pan and fly all over creation for altruistic reasons."
I smiled. "Well maybe a little recognition."
"They pulled him out, you know?"
"Yeah. Apparently he was in the barn. Not a scratch on him. Apparently he's triple jointed and was hidden in a really tiny spot.. Geez you took a big risk. Just be extra careful out there" I nodded solemnly.
Halloween night I was again at Alex's. The Halloween goblins seemed like the usual mix of ninjas, princesses, ghosts and TV characters. But I kept my eyes open for a scarecrow. I didn't see one the whole night, either at Alex's or on patrol later. But Culver's was open, and the maze and haunted house were in full swing. I landed, paid an admission and went in. With my costume, I wasn't given a second glance--and I saw two or three other White Owls in the mix.
There was a scarecrow on the gibbet again. But it wasn't Owen or Effigy. So I waited until he came down to speak with him. The scarecrow came by me around midnight. "Hello Mr Culver," I said.
He started and stared at me. "You're the real one," he said. "The real White Owl." I nodded. Lonnie sat down and mopped his head.
"I'm glad you came. I wanted to thank you. You may have saved my business. You DID save that girl." Lonnie frowned. "I just wish it hadn't been the killings and notoriety that brought the crowds."
"So what are your plans then?"
"Well we'll finish this season tonight, then I probably won't run the haunted attractions again. I don't want people coming to see a killing field, I want them to have a good time. And I can't have a good time running this any more."
I was about to reassure him, when I realized he may have been right. "Give it some time to heal, and then make your decisions, Mr Culver." He nodded and I smiled. "Well I'd better be going. It seems that Sheriff Lynch isn't all that pleased with me."
Culver smiled. "Don't worry about him, White Owl. At least tonight, he's occupied elsewhere. But I understand you have a lot more to do tonight than sit with an old farmer. We walked to the edge of the parking lot and I caught a current that brought me downtown. The rest of the patrol was uneventful and I was in bed early for White Owl.
The End.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Year One: Facing her Fears

The middle two weeks of March were always interesting times in Queen City. The city was still chilly as winter's last throes slowly relaxed their stranglehold. Hope was building in the baseball fans, the river would generally rise and flood the stadiums and the Spaide's International Circus came to town. This year, the circus was actually playing a two week stand , though I had been carefully avoiding it. Ever since I was a little girl, clowns frightened me and I was unwilling to place myself in a situation where my fears could run rampant.
Instead, I had been busy with work and with a string of unsolved robberies. One of them involved a daring afternoon smash and grab, in the store window of Gailliot Jewelers. The Window had been smashed and the displays of diamonds had been cleaned out in a hurry. The daring part was it had happened as the Circus parade had come through town. No one remembered seeing anything, as they were all entranced by the parade.
What made it more surprising was that Gailliot was located facing the street, yes; but on the second floor of a busy bank. Yet no one, inside or out hand seen anything.
Another surprising robbery had occurred a few days later at the Davidson and Dopf Auction house. The firm was planning a new auction of art and fabrics; specifically tapestries and rare rugs. But the locked warehouse was opened one morning to find several rare rugs gone, apparently through an open skylight.
"I can't understand it Owl," said Lieutenant Winslow. "How in the world do these things happen?"
I smiled. "What about an Orangutan?" Winslow shot me a puzzled look.
Blushing, I continued. "In the Poe story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, spectacular crimes are committed by a raging ape.
Winslow put out his Laramie then scowled. "I don't think we've got a monkey on these cases Owl. I don't even know if they're related. All I know is I got two unsolved crimes with a fantastic nature. You seem to get to the bottom of them better than I can."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I replied. "I'll look into it."
I flew home and slept, waking only because the telephone was so insistent.
"Athena Nikos, I think" I answered.
"Hey sis! You're coming with me tonight to the circus!" Diana's voice was pitched with excitement. I repressed a shudder.
"Isn't there anything else I can do instead?" I asked.
"Oh come on Theena! I came home for Spring Break, and I managed to score tickets for my girls and me. But I need another chaperone to keep them in line."
I should mention that Diana had been a youth softball coach in the inner city before she went to Zenith for school. Apparently, she'd continued to keep in touch with what she referred to as "her " girls. I drew a deep breath and said OK. After all, it was for a good cause.
"Great, I'll see you in an hour," she said. "And don't worry, Theena. I'll make sure the clowns don't bite." The phone clicked dead and I sat in my bed stroking Daisy, who was demanding both petting and breakfast. Deciding she'd rather eat than be adored, the cat raced me to the kitchen and yowled plainly at her empty dish.
I fed the cat, then showered and slipped into some jeans and a sweater. I ate some breakfast and was ready to go when Diana showed up driving a large van. I climbed in and we went through the old Germantown section of Queen City, accumulating teenaged girls with every stop. Around noon, we stopped at a Goldline restaurant, and Diana and I fed twelve very hungry girls.
"Next stop, the circus!" shouted Diana, and we got back into the van. The matinee show was fantastic, and I marveled at the skills of the aerialists, and the other acrobats. We were far enough back that the clowns capering in the ring didn't seem to bother me much. But I noticed someone moving out of the corner of my eye as the spotlight followed him down. I jumped when I saw a short clown in a tattered yellow costume shambling toward me.
I shrieked, and slipped down into my chair hoping he'd pass by. The clown moved on down the stairs, then stopped. He turned back and waved at me. Timidly I waved back. The clown came back and stretched out a hand for me to shake it. I took it with trembling hands. The clown's hand came off in mind and I screamed. The clown rolled like he was laughing silently and I could hear the audience laughing hysterically around me. With a meek smile, I returned the hand to the clown. He tipped his pointy hat at me, then went on toward the floor.
I sulked back into the chair at the Colosseum and faked interest for the clowns, and the horse riders and the motorcycle riders in the cage. But when Clive St James was announced, I perked up. Clive was a large animal trainer with a fantastic show. He was skilled with his whip, bringing lions and tigers into skillful formations of pyramids, jumping them through hoops, and being tame enough for him to place his head into the mouth of a lion.
A second animal trainer worked with smaller primates including chimpanzees. Her chimps formed pyramids, scrambled up the ladders to the high wire and performed amazing leaps from the wires to the trapeze.
"As you can see, chimpanzees are natural acrobats," said the ringmaster. "Maree has done a wonderful job with these intelligent creatures, and they just love her." As he spoke, the chimpanzees scrambled back to their trainer and together they took a bow. The show was about to end then , but there was a loud trumpeting.
The Ringmaster looked around and opened his mouth to close the show again but a trumpeting noise issued forth again. I couldn't help myself and joined the crowd in a laugh. The ringmaster looked around again and spotted a sad looking tramp clown.
The tramp clown was wearing an undersized black suit and a broken hat. His oversized shoes had holes in them and a bright green bandanna dangled from his breast pocket. He leaned wearily on a broom, and pointed behind him. Emmilene the Elephant stood there, brandishing a broom in her trunk. The ringmaster nodded.
"Thanks Harry! Folks, Hapless Harry here has reminded us to be good citizens and clean up around our seats before we leave. And Emmilene has agreed to help with her part." The spotlight fell on the elephant and clown and they did a sweeping routine around the ring. While they swept, I saw several of the performers standing large barrels around the ring.
Harry turned and with a shocked look, he pointed at the barrels. Emmilene nodded her trunk, then handed Harry the broom. She walked to the first barrel and put her foot onto it. Harry nodded and the elephant crushed the barrel. Harry applauded then went to sit on the next one. Emmilene beat him to it and Harry fell onto the crushed can and sawdust. The crowd roared.
Harry stood and looked Emmilene in the eye as the moved toward the next barrel. He pointed to the barrel and shook his head. Emmilene nodded in agreement, then squashed the barrel. A spray of water shot out, soaking Harry. He wiped water out of his eyes with the green Bandana, then set it on a barrel. Emmilene avoided that barrel. But when Harry moved again, he left the bandanna behind.
This routine went on for another few minutes until all but one barrel was crushed. The last barrel had the green bandanna on it. Harry removed the bandanna and Emmilene was about to squash it. Harry dropped to his knees to beg Emmilene to leave that barrel alone. Emmilene stopped, trumpeted and upended the barrel. The tiny little clown in yellow rolled out, throwing confetti and blowing a horn. The crowd roared in approval and the show ended.
I blinked out the sunlight as we left the Colosseum and made our way to the van. It was a bright but chilly afternoon in Queen City, and I shuddered a bit. I drew my arms around me and felt that my sterling silver crucifix wasn't around my neck. "My necklace!" I said.
"Are you sure you had it sis?" asked Diana.
"I never take it off, you know that," I said. "Mother gave it to me for my confirmation. Go ahead and take the girls home--I can catch the bus." Diana looked like she was about to protest, but I said, "Go. This might take some time. I'll see you for church tomorrow though, before you go back to Zenith."
Diana and her protégés left and I retraced my steps back to the section where we'd been sitting. I was surprised how quickly the Colosseum had been cleared out, and how quiet it was in the building. I spotted a short man, and realized it was the clown who'd given me such a fright earlier. "Excuse me," I said.
The man stopped. "Hiya!" he said in a friendly voice. "Sorry about that scare earlier, but you was good for a laugh to the rest of the crowd. "
My face flushed but I smiled despite it. "Thank you--you did give me a bit of a fright though. My name is Athena and I was wondering where I might locate the lost and found?"
"Call me Stinky," he said. "An' the boss' office would be the lost an' found. Its down here by da ticket office." Stinky led the way and I followed after him. I met the ringmaster and the 24 hour man in the office.
"Certainly Ms Nikos," said Mr Spaide, the ringmaster. "Someone found the necklace earlier and turned it in. Good to see there's still honest people in this world."
I took the chain and thanked him. "It IS good to see that," I said. "Thank you Mr Spaide. I had a most enjoyable afternoon.
"Then you should come back for our night show," he said. It's the last show here in Queen City. We break down tonight afterwards and move on to Louisville, then St Louis, then Keystone."
"Sounds like a busy life."
"Not if the circus is in your blood." he said. I thanked him again and went out of the office. I had gotten turned around though and walked into the arena without thinking about it. Inside I saw Stinky arguing with someone.
"You better not be holding out on me clown. I saw that necklace. Solid sterling with rubies."
"I told you! The dame came back for it! I don't know how she knew it was gone." I heard a sharp crack and Stinky jumped back a foot. I pressed into the wall and listened in.
"You fool! She could ruin our entire operation! Fortunately we're leaving tonight--there won't be any way for her to follow up. You got lucky this time Stinky, so I'm going to let you live!"
I'd heard enough. I slipped into the empty ladies room and changed rapidly. I hid my purse in a loose ceiling tile, then flew out into the empty hallways of the arena and dove toward the ring. Stinky was slouching away, and around the ring, I could see various acts doing final touch ups and practices. I swooped low and grabbed the small man by his wrists and began to lift him.
"What?" he said. Then Stinky called out "HEY RUBE!!" All around the ring the performers broke what they were doing and followed after me. I turned to see what was going on and Stinky bit my arm through my NuSilk glove.
"Owwww!" I said, dropping the clown toward the sawdust. I large man in a leopard skin positioned himself under Stinky and caught him; I recognized the strongman. I angled around and clotheslined myself on the highwire. I tumbled breathless to the safety net and felt powerful hands pulling my legs through the thick netting.
I heard a soft BOOM as the cannon fired and the Amazing Marshall flew across the rings, crashing with his thick helmet into my stomach. I saw stars, then I saw nothing.
I woke up with a foul stench in my nose. My mouth was dry, and I couldn't close my lips--I saw the tip of a green cloth in my mouth. I heard chains rattling and saw my wrists were chained though a floor staple. The odor was the smell of a menagerie and I realized I had been locked into an animal cage, out of sight of the public. My muffled calls for help and any loud poundings would no doubt be construed as an animal with a bad attitude.
I pulled on the chains, trying to ascertain how strong they were, when I heard a sharp, snide voice behind me.
"The chain was designed to be strong enough to hold Emmiline, White Owl. I would be willing to bet it would constrain you." Startled, I turned to see Clive St John leaning in the opening of the cage.
"You're a loose end now, my dear. I don't quite know how you tumbled on to my little burglary and resale scheme, but now you've seen it, you'll have to go." I gave him what I hoped would be a questioning look, urging him to elaborate.
"We have some time before you die, so I suppose I'll indulge your curiosity," St John said. "The Circus is a dying thing. The animal rights people are already making it hard for me to do my job, and the costs for veterinary bills and animal fodder are ridiculous!. So I engaged my small friends to help earn their keep. We'd burglarize a few items in Queen City, say, and sell them in Keystone, after the heat died down. And in all this time, you're the only one to have figured it out. Stinky messed up, and your little friend no doubt tipped you off."
"Good," I thought. "St John hasn't figured out who I am."
"I detest loose ends, White Owl, so I've prepared a glorious end for you. That fool Harry will get the blame and I'll get rid of both you and Stinky." St John opened a small leather pouch and I saw a large bottle of some liquid and a hypodermic needle.
"I'm going to use Emmiline to do you in, White Owl. You're going into a barrel tonight." My eyes grew wide and I pulled back, trying to avoid Clive St John. He grabbed my upper arm and I swung my leg, kicking him in the crotch. St John winced but stood his ground.
"I've a nice, strong codpiece, White Owl. Now hold still." I felt a sharp pinch, then felt the warm liquid oozing into my arm.
"There," he said. "That should hold you for several hours." I could feel my heart racing and my eyes fluttered. My body went limp and I fought to stay awake. St John undid the staple, leaving my hands chained and lifted me like a kitten. I slumped into his chest, barely conscious. He poured me into one of the big metal barrels for the closing act and I saw the lid come down tight over me.
I don't remember how long I was out. But I was aware of being moved, and I realized that the show's end was coming up. Through the metal wall, I could feel the reverberation of the ringmaster's microphone. I heard the crowd's roar as Emmaline and Harry did their routine. But I couldn't make out how far they were along in the show, nor where my barrel was placed. I squirmed in the barrel, trying to brace my feet against the sides. But I was wedged in, and it was hard to get bearings. I finally managed to get my feet to the top of the barrel and pressed against it, just as something pressed down from the top.
I felt sweat breaking out on my brow as I resisted the weight on the lid. I heard a trumpet, as Emmiline got confused. After all, this wasn't a part of her acct. I felt the lid's weight get lighter as she stepped back and I kicked the lid Fr. The barrel fell over and I rolled it, came to my feet and ran with the barrel still over my head. The crowd roared, and I ran toward the wall, throwing the barrel off, and snapping the chains.
From the corner of my eye, I saw St John, growing pale at the sight of me., I jumped out, swooped toward him and caught him by the collar of his shirt. St John flailed as I held him in the air, then dropped him into the net. As he sat up, he saw several police officers pointing guns at him.
The crowd roared as Emmiline freed Stinky. I grabbed him and tossed him to the police as well. "I'll be down to see Lt Winslow in a short while," I said flipping a wave to the audience and flying out of the arena. The circus was over in Queen City.
Three hours later I was in Winslow's office, filing a report and pressing charges.
"We found the tapestries and jewelry in St Johns' and Stinky's mobile homes," said Winslow. "Add the attempted murder and I think St John's going away for a long time."
"I guess I was right, wasn't I lieutenant?" I asked.
"I don't think so, " said Winslow.
"What do you mean?"
"There wasn't an orangutan anywhere. Chimpanzees, lions, elephants, to be sure, but no orangutans."
"Great," I said. "I've got clowns to the left of me, a joker to the right and I'm stuck in the middle with you."
We laughed about that, then I flew home to call Diana and feed Daisy.
The End...

Year One: On Ice

Have you ever felt you were being watched? Most of the time, you're tilting at shadows; or your imagination is being overly active. But for two months following my adventure with the Guild of Heroes, I was vaguely aware of being watched.
It wasn't really anything I could put my finger on. And it certainly wasn't a constant surveillance. Nevertheless, I was beginning to find small bits of evidence. Bootprints on a snowy rooftop across from the STAR Labs, where I'd defused a hostage situation; the whirring of a camera as I deposited a group of juveniles into the custody of Lieutenant Winslow. These things were beginning to add up.
So I was more than ready tonight. A cold snap was riffling through Queen City, with a biting wind off the Ohio in the downtown section. I was freezing. But I spotted her. The woman moved with catlike grace in and out of the shadows surrounding the Atlas tower. I shivered as she soundlessly climbed the fire escape, ducking into the fifth floor, where the Sherry diamond exchange was located. Fifteen minutes later, true to form, the Tigress emerged out the same window, with a small backpack bulging with uncut gems.
She sat on the ledge of the fire escape, as if testing the wind. Satisfied, she swing down to street level where a subtle Miata awaited her. Of course, I was waiting too. "Going somewhere? Didn't your mother teach you it wasn't nice to take things that weren't yours?"
Tigress got into a crouch, holding her hands out in a martial arts pose. She lunged at me, claws high, and I felt her nails slice into my NuSilk costume, leaving a streak of shredded material behind.
"Hey, these suits aren't free," I wailed, thinking I needed a set of claws like hers. Tigress laughed, her long, blonde hair framing her tanned face. She dove at me again, and I dodged, watching her tumble into the heavy dumpsters behind the Atlas building. With a quick speed, I palmed two special silvery balls from my belt pouches and threw. A perfect cast and a net ball exploded over Tigress, trapping her, with a heavily weighted net. She snarled at me, as I approached, then dropped silently to the ground, as a gas ball was exploded in her face.
But the second throw was even more accurate, and thrown almost blindly. I think the Golden Archer was even more surprised than Tigress. "Well well, what's this? The Guild is keeping an eye on me? What's the matter? Were you afraid I'd catch all the bad guys for you? Looking for a few pointers?"
I admit it, I was being more than a bit arrogant.
The Golden Archer squirmed a bit, and I could see her trying to formulate an answer. "Well. you are an unknown still, White Owl. We're looking to be certain you're on our side. And well," she paused, trying to frame the words correctly, " it's a background check. I'm not supposed to reveal this, but your name has been submitted to the Guild as a potential member. We follow that up with several visits by members to insure we're getting a bona fide superhero, and not a plant or impostor or someone who just got lucky once or twice."
I was fuming. "What makes you think I even WANT to be in your Guild?" I saw Winslow's headlights painting my silhouette on the wall in the alley.
"You OK Owl?" he asked.
"I'm fine," I replied.
"You catch TWO?"
"No just Tigress, this one is...well different." Winslow came up behind me and I heard a low whistle of admiration.
"Wow, the Golden Archer. I didn't think she ever left Midway. Better be careful White Owl, or she'll have the Guild on you." He excused himself and took Tigress into custody, with a chuckle.
The Archer smiled. "There's one compelling reason to work with the Guild; it brings a sizable backup to your side." She continued as I extricated her from the netting. "The other upside is access to the Guild record base, which is extensive. We have files on everyone from the Aardvark to Zymurgy, the brewing bandit. You don't have to work without complete information. And several of us have other skills we lend to the Guild as well. For instance, Scirocco is a police forensics and ballistics expert, and the Dark Hunter has centuries of mystic knowledge. Areas you might not feel comfortable in, you could share and get help."
"At the cost of my identity," I said. "Wouldn't I be giving that up? Or my free time? I remember Danger Woman talking about monitor duty."
"That's something we're still working on," said the Archer. It's not cast in stone yet. And it really is an honor to be nominated; and more thrilling to be admitted." She unslung her quiver and bow, dropping it into a rather non-descript rental car. "Think it over," she said, "we'll be in touch."
I returned home late, and the warm bath had the effect of both relaxing me and drawing the chill from my bones. I collapsed into bed, with Daisy curled up under my right arm, purring loudly.
The following morning, I was back at the museum, watching the crowds for the recently opened exhibit swell. "You've done good work," said a deep voice behind me. I turned around, startled. A well built man with sandy brown hair and pleasant face smiled at me behind wire rim glasses.
"I'm Virgil Coleman," he said proffering a hand. "Your curator told me who set the exhibit and where to find you. I must say I'm impressed."
"Athena Nikos," I said, giving his hand a firm squeeze. "But why are you so interested in this particular exhibit? It's not really the best effort of Thracian artifacts."
"Perhaps not, but I like to see my investments turn out well," he smiled. "Maybe I should have added, Virgil Coleman, of Victory Investments." I melted at that.
"A patron," I said. "I need to thank you for funding my work, and that of Drs. Jones and Leonides." Coleman waved a hand.
"It's nothing," he said. "I was trained to do good wherever I could, and expanding our knowledge of the past is part of it." Coleman drew a deep breath.
"Actually, Ms Nikos, I'm here to discuss a business offer with you. But I know this isn't the time and place. Could I take you out tonight?" He smiled a winning smile and I caved.
"All right, Mr Coleman. I'd be glad to have dinner with you." I gave him my address.
"I'll be there at eight," he said.
That night I was pacing at seven fifty-five. Dressed in my little black dress, I was having difficulty keeping Daisy from rubbing against me and she sulked off to sit atop the hutch of my computer desk. Frustrated, I stepped out to the hallway and looked at the elevator, trying to see if the numbers were moving up or down. The clock in the kitchen read eight when I stepped back into the apartment. "He's running late," I muttered. But a sharp rapping on my patio door made me jump.
Now I live on the fifth floor of my building. There is no access to the patio except THROUGH my apartment. Warily, I stepped to the patio door, with a heavy Aztec stonecarving in my hand. I opened the door and stared into the eyes of...
"Captain Valiant?" I said, awestruck. "What are you doing here?"
He smiled. "Did you forget our date?" he asked. He ran his hand through his hair and a moment later, he stood with a different hairstyle and a familiar pair of wire rim glasses.
"Virgil Coleman is Captain Valiant," he said. He apprised my outfit. "You look terrific Athena, but I was hoping you'd wear that little white number I've seen you in before."
I gasped. Then I got control of myself, and smiled. "It will just be a moment," I said crossing to the stairs to my loft room. "No peeking with those super powers of yours."
He affected a wounded pose. "Madam, I am a professional! When I peek, it's in the line of duty." I blew him a kiss, then bounded up the stairs. I returned about five minutes later, pulling my gloves over my hands and observing Captain Valiant losing a staredown contest with Daisy.
I petted my cat, letting her know he was all right. She purred but didn't get down from the hutch. We stepped onto the patio and I latched the door behind me. "Can you fly to Guild HQ?" I shook my head remembering that coming home from the last visit had taken three hours.
"Then how about the STAR tower downtown? I'll race you." He jumped into the air, and I was hot behind him, zipping past at the last moment, beating him to the tower by a second or two.
"You let me win!" I protested.
"Maybe I did, but you'll never prove it!" he said, landing next to me.
"So why are we here?" I asked. "Are you going to offer me a job with STAR?"
"No," he said. "STAR allows us to use their rooftops for our teleporters, in exchange for their being able to examine any alien technology we can turn over to them. So far I think the exchange is working in their favor." He led me to an apparently empty corner of the rooftop. At his approach, the stealth screen dropped and I saw a highly technological setup. Valiant set a few controls then motioned me in.
"It's safe," he said. "I've added you to the matrix, and I'm traveling with you." He squeezed into the tube and I saw a flash of light. When my eyes adjusted again, the dark February night of Queen City had given way to the warm glow of the Guild headquarters.
"I know I promised you dinner," he said. "So if you'll walk this way?" I followed Valiant through the trophy room, marveling at all the weaponry, helmets, masks and costumes of the various villains the Guild members had defeated. We stopped before an ornate double door and Valiant opened the door into a dark room. "Go ahead Owl, I'll get the lights."
I stepped in, wary once again, when I heard "SURPRISE!!" The lights came on and I saw a huge banner reading, "Welcome White Owl!" Danger Woman came up and grasped one hand, leading me to a seat at a huge table. I saw a stylized Owl carved into the seat and opened my mouth in awe.
"The Guild voted last night, White Owl," gushed Danger Woman. "I'm so excited."
"That's enough Danger Woman," said Dark Hunter, emerging (as usual) from the shadows. "We wouldn't want to deprive the Captain of his moment in the sun."
Valiant cleared his throat. "The Captain was unable to attend tonight Dark Hunter, so he asked Scirocco and me to do the honors." A dark woman in a dark green bodysuit with long dark hair stood next to Captain Valiant. I recognized her as Scirocco, the speedster. She held up a document and began reading in a beautiful, slightly accented voice.
"The Guild of Superheroes hereby elects White Owl to membership for life with all the privileges and gratuities, including the wearing of the signal device and passcodes for the Headquarters, its library, laboratories, databases, teleporters and souvenir rooms.
"It is further resolved that White Owl shall receive a special commendation for her expert assistance in resolving an alien attack and freeing key members of the Guild prior to her induction."
The room lit in cheers. "Welcome to the Guild, White Owl!" echoed several voices. Captain Valiant leaned into me and spoke softly, "This is why several members have been observing you. But your capturing the Golden Archer last night was the clincher for the vote. And this is the business proposition I meant this morning." He flashed his warm smile, and I couldn't be angry. The Guild spared no expense, and dinner was served for all of us, on fine china by robot waiters.
Throughout the night I was introduced to the various members of the Guild; at least those who were in attendance. Some I'd known previously, others only by reputation, I felt honored, and perhaps a little humbled by these paragons.
The night drew on, and finally, I stood up. "Thank you all, this has been quite an honor. I certainly hope to be able to live up to your welcome and your high standards. But even birds of prey like myself need to sleep. Especially as some of us are not independently wealthy." I saw several nods and I heard several "Good Nights" as I headed toward the transporter. Valiant followed me and reset the controls.
"Do you mind if I say my goodnights here?" he asked. "It's not really good form to not see one's date home."
"It's all right Mr Coleman. You know where I live, and I'm so tired, I doubt I'd be inviting you in for a nightcap." He nodded and turned me to face him. "Be careful out there White Owl. I...I think I'm starting to fall for you."
I blushed. "It's all right Cap. I was thinking the same thing." I stood on my tiptoes and grabbed his neck, pulling him close. I kissed him deeply, reveling in the warmth of his body.
We broke the kiss, and with a flustered look and a contented smile, Captain Valiant set the controls. I saw the bright flash of light again, and I stepped out onto the rooftop at STAR labs in Queen City. I was about to jump into the sky for home, when I saw the rooftop access port open. A long trail of ice led into the doorway.
"That's odd," I said. I glided to the ice, then followed the trail into the building. The sixteenth floor had been turned into a mockup of the north pole. Two guards, their bodies twisted into icy mannequins, stood silently in front of the experimental pharmacy. The locked door was open. I dove into the pharmacy and shouted, "Hold it right there."
But there was no one there. Too late I realized someone had heard me and was ready. I heard a loud humming and felt a shaft of supercold air hit my back.
I tried to turn, but the very air around me was freezing. My arms and legs refused to move and I felt myself becoming another ice mannequin like the guards. In a desperate move, I tried to reach my belt buckle, stopping just inches from my new signaling device.
Encased in the ice, I could still see the room around me. A chubby man in a tight blue suit stepped in front of me. "You must be White Owl," he said. "I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Frosty Fred, and you're new name is bait."
He pointed a small gun at my waist and melted through the ice to my belt buckle. With a deft touch, he activated my signaling device. "There, that should bring that Scarlet Buffoon to your rescue."
"Captain Valiant has a fatal weakness, White Owl. The planet he came from was much like Earth, but closer to its own sun. As a result, this planet is cool to him. And extreme cold, polar cold or even space cold is like poison to him. Not many people know this though; just Valiant, a few scientists at STAR Labs and now you and me.
"But I owe him for arresting me several years back. I was one of those scientists at STAR, and I tried to patent some alien technology the Guild had brought us. When I found out I couldn't patent, I stole the technology, developing my Icer. But Captain Valiant and the Guild put an end to me."
I remembered the Icer. I had seen it in the trophy room. But the model Fred held seemed more compact and powerful. Frosty Fred cocked his head and melted back into a dark corner. I could see the familiar silver and scarlet costume of Captain Valiant slowly wading into the iced over sixteenth floor. Carefully, he was melting the ice with several warm breaths. He looked at me though, and the guards, then stopped short.
"White Owl!" he said in alarm. He crossed the floor and raised a fist to smash through the ice. From behind though, Fred sighted him in the Icer and fired.
The Icer forced Valiant to his knees. Groaning in pain, the mighty hero trembled, struggling to bring his superpowers on line.
"Remember me, Captain Idiot?" gloated Frosty Fred as Captain Valiant slowed to a stop; then began icing over himself. "I knew you couldn't resist a damsel in distress."
Captain Valiant stopped moving as Frosty Fred stood over him, his back to me. Fred kept pointing the Icer at Captain Valiant, adding layer after layer of ice to the downed hero. "Soon, even your gallant heart will stop beating, and I shall have my revenge. And your new ladyfriend will be forced to watch before she dies too. How does it feel Valiant, knowing that in the end you couldn't even save yourself?"
Fred's gloating was cut short though. The small hole he'd carved in my own ice had widened a bit with my efforts, and with my own Olympian strength I'd broken through the ice. A large chunk hit the villain in the back of the head, severing the cable to his cryonics pack.
"What? How? NOOooooo!!!!" shouted Frosty Fred as he froze solid under the forces of his own Icer. I couldn't stop. I grabbed a handful of flares from my pouch and dropped them under the guards and Captain Valiant. I called the QCPD and the FDQC to take charge of Frosty Fred and the guards respectively. But by the time they arrived I was gone, and so was Valiant.
"I thought you said I wasn't going to be invited in for a...a...ACHOO!!! A nightcap," said Captain Valiant, wrapped in my thickest comforter. I snuggled up to him and ran my hands against his chest. His body was warm next to mine, and I felt his powerful arms gently cradle me in an embrace.
"Well you WERE cold, and I thought you could use some chicken soup and warmth. Your costume needed to be cleaned and dried, and I don't hear you protesting overly much at the special attention you're receiving. Besides, there is a proverb 'If two lie down together, then they can have warmth; but how can one be warm alone?' "
"I doubt your priest would agree with that sentiment, but I like it," he said, snuggling closer. "You realize, that Frosty Fred carries grudges don't you?"
I nodded. "I figured I was putting on a target when I first donned the costume. But if it protects the innocents, I'm all for it."
"That's the reason I voted for you," said Captain Valiant.
"Just what was the vote?" I asked.
"Well, we never really tell. It might cause trouble in the ranks."
"Come on, just between us?"
Valiant smiled. "Believe it or not, it was unanimous. And before you ask, there are several others who've had that honor." He shivered again. "What was that about two keeping warm, again?"
I laughed and curled myself into his chest. "Just count on me for that," I said. There was a thud on the bed, and Daisy curled up with us both.
The End.