Monday, April 19, 2010

Another Fine Mess Part One

The game ended after nine innings, and the Gems had come out on the losing end to the Pirates. The parking garages around the stadium emptied quickly, and Hao Chin, an import dealer from Singapore found himself alone in the third unfamiliar garage close to midnight. Finally spotting his rental car, he quickly crossed through the eerie shadows and pressed the unlock tab on his key fob.

The car beeped twice, and Hao Chin sighed, realizing that the hoped for rendezvous had still not occured. He put his hand on the handle of his car and felt a sharp object about his neck.

"On your kness Hao Chin, or I'll let Daliyah turn you into dog food." Chin dropped to his knees, his fingers interlaced behind his head.

A dark oriental woman reached into his pocket, and pulled out his wallet and passport. Studying it, she said, "I'm Yukiko, Lauren's top lieutenant. She sent me to meet you and to hear your offer."

Despite his submissive pose, Hao Chin held his ground. "No, I will not deal with mere intermediaries or minions."

He felt the knife at his throat again, as Yukiko crouched in front of him. He lithe body exuded the grace of a dancer, or perhaps a skilled martial artist, and Hao Chin realized she could take his head off without much effort. "Don't go calling names Mon," he heard in a heavily accented voice.

"I am afraid Daliyah doesn't have much patience with intolerance, Mr. Chin," said Yukiko. And in don't have mch patience, period. Once more, the offer?"

"No!" said Chin. ""My request was simple. And my orders from my patron were explicit. I am to deal with Lauren O'Rourke, alone. Failing that, then death would be welcome to my honor."

A black Mecedes turned on its headlamps, and the door opened. "A'right Chin, ye got y'r meeting. I'm Lauren O'Rourke." The slender, elegant redhead was dressed in a cream colored linen pantsuit, with a green silk blouse underneath setting off her emerald eyes. A cream colored fedora was perched at a Sinatraesque angle on top of her head, completing the look. Confidence exuded from her like an exquisite perfume.

"No, no, don't get up on my account," said Lauren, a soft Celtic lilt matching her fey features. "And we O'Rourke's have the Sight,; so I'll know if you're trying to pull a fast one. " She dismissed her guards and nodded toward the Mercedes.

"Supposin' I treat this as a business meeting, then. Would you be amenable to a late seafood dinner?" asked Lauren.

"I suppose so, provided you call me again," deadpanned Chin.
Lauren tittered politely at the lame joke, and thirty minutes later, both Lauren and Chin were seated in a private room at Mantooth's Fine Seafood Restaurant. After the waiter brought the food, the doors were shut and the two of them enjoyed a bit of privacy as Yukiko and and Daliyah provided security just outside the door.

"I thought people in your profession preferred eating pasta," said Hao Chin, as he sliced into a large salmon steak.

"You have me confused with the bloody Italians," replied Lauren, nibbling daintily on shrimp scampi. "We Irish eat anythin' and are glad of it."

"My apologies, I meant no offense."

"None taken," said Lauren. She waited a moment while the wineglasses were refilled, then said. "Now down to business. What brings an importer like you halfway around the world. It must be something unique if you can't find it in Singapore."

Chin wiped his face with a napkin and nodded. "Very rare, indeed. In fact, one of a kind. You might even say a rara avis."

"You're importin' bloody BIRDS?" Lauren sounded incredulous. "An' just what sort of unique bird calls Queen City home?"

"My buyer requests a predatory bird. One which you have as much reason to see gone as I do to see acquired. An Owl."

Lauren's elfin face did a poor job of masking her surprise. "You want my help in capturin' that beaked busybody?" Tossing her head back, Lauren convulsed in laughter.

"Oh Laddie," she said eventually, wiping a tear from her eye. "I'd be DELIGHTED to help you acquire this item. Hell, I may even do it gratis!" At this, Lauren's lieutenants gasped. She waved at the two of them.

"Don't worry lassies. I haven't addled my wits yet," said Lauren. Turning back to Hao Chin, she added, "So what's in it for me, besides gettin' rid of the Hooter, I mean?"

Chin took a pen and small notebook from his pocket, then scribbled a number on it. He slid the folded paper to his hostess, then sat back with a satisfied smile on his face. Lauren took up the paper and studied it carefully. "Is this your offer? Or is this a joke?"

Chin frowned, "That's my offer."

"That's a joke," Lauren replied, wadding up the slip of paper and burning it in the ashtray. "I take all the risks, lay out all the capital for a capture AND containment system, prepare the acquisition for transport, and YOU get all the reward? Not bloody likely at this price. I'd go into the hole on this one. I think you can do better. I'll give you just one more chance."

Chin looked worried. Trembling, he picked up his pad and scrutinized the numbers again. "Just a moment ago, you said you were willing to do this for free," he protested.

"That was me heart talkin'. But where these contracts are concerned, I stifle the little bastard an' listen to me brain. Now are you going to write? or am I going to walk out and never call you again?"

Chin began to write with Yukiko standing over one shoulder. He was about to slide the pad back when Lauren said, "Add another zero."

"You can't be serious!" protested Chin.

"I'm always serious when I talk money," said Lauren. "And I want half now and half on delivery. And I want to know who the buyer is. After all, someone wants to buy a superheroine, he must think he's pretty hot stuff."

"I will agree to half now and half on delivery," said Chin. "But I will not tell you who the buyer is. After all, you might try to undercut me and offer him a better deal. Now I can transfer the money early tomorrow morning if you'd like?"

Lauren opened a cell phone and pressed one button, "Not necessary. Hold on a minute." She spoke into the phone. "Hello Leticia? Its me, be prepared for a large transfer." Lauren rattled off a long series of numbers. Then she handed the phone to Chin.

"This is Leticia, my Bahamian banker. She's willing to arrange a transfer now. And I'll sign any paperwork in the meanwhile?"

"Oh no, no paperwork, Ms O'Rourke," said Chin. "I trust you'll stick to the terms discussed. And there should be soomething special just for you upon sucessful completion? Call it a bonus."

Chin turned to the telephone, then scribbled something down and handed the confirmation to Lauren. Lauren nodded then spoke to Chin again, "I'll contact you in three weeks to arrange the transfer on my end. I trust that will be sufficient time?"

Chin agreed. "I will be travelling around the country, working on a few other acquisitions. Your Western styles appeals to many in my markets. You have my contact information?" Lauren nodded and Chin stood and bowed, then showed himself out.

Once the door closed Yukiko said, "I do not trust him."

"You'd be a right foo to do so," agreed Lauren. "But the money is good an' if it rids us of the White Chicken, then so much the better." She stood and stretched, her taut form exciting both Yukiko and Daliyah. Fully aware of the reactions she elicited, Lauren turned back to the two women and said, "Get the Council together. We need to make plans to cook the Grey Goose!"
(to be continued)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fever Pitch

The plane set down in Hub City right on schedule. I looked up from my Ipod and waited patiently for the other passengers on the Trans Air Commuter flight to deplane, then grabbed my messenger bag and followed along. After grabbing my suitcase from the carousel, I flagged a taxi and settled in.
"Where ya goin' lady?" asked the driver; his Hub City accent nasally and distinct.
"75 Basin Street," I replied. "It's in Comisky."
"Yeah, I know the neighborhood. Grew up a few blocks away on Canal." He eased the long yellow Impala into traffic and followed the expressway around Hub to the Comisky exit. As he drove, we chatted, typical small talk.
"You from Hub?" he asked.
"No, Queen City," I smiled, seeing his ears droop and knowing what was coming next.
"Yeah, home of the Gems," he said. "Not a bad team, but nothin' on our Bruins."
"Well, yes, we've had a rough few years," I said. "But we have a more recent World Series than your Bruins."
At that the baseball talk stopped. "C'n I ask what brings a nice lady like you t' Hub City?"
"Oh a personal visit, and a trip to my doctor."
"You doin' both in one trip?" he asked.
"I'm doing both in one stop," I replied. "My friend and my physician are both Dr Abu Mirelleh." The cab pulled up to the large brownstone Alyssa owned. the lower level was where she held her private practice, the upper two floors were her elegant home. I stepped from the cab and paid the gentleman, complete with a generous tip; then looked around Alyssa's neighborhood.
Her house fronted on a large park, part of a square. In the grass, I saw small children flying kites or playing on the swings, with their mothers or nannies close at hand watching intently. A Comisky patrol car drove up the block and I waved at the police officer, smiling as she waved back.
I walked up the steps to the front door and opened it wide. "Anybody home?" I called out.
"Hi Athena, I'll be right down," I heard Alyssa call from upstairs. I set my bags against the wall and sat in the waiting room. A moment later, Alyssa stepped into the exam room, with my folder in her hand. She was of average height, but slender, and her dark black hair hung down to the small of her back. Her skin was a golden brown, betraying her Arab roots; and her eyes were filled with intelligence. She smiled as she saw me and I stood up to give her a hug.
"Gosh you look fantastic Alyssa," I said.
"I could say the same about you, roomie," she said. Her accent was noticeable but not thick; and served more to enhance her exotic looks than detract from them. "But that's why you're here isn't it?" A hint of a smile played at her lips.
"Thank you for arranging your schedule to see me a bit earlier than usual, Athena," said Alyssa.
"This time, I need to be out of town for a while."
"Oh really?" I said interested. "Is it a continuing education credit?"
"Nothing so mundane,"said Alyssa, handing me a hospital gown. "Why don't you slip into this, and I'll fill you in during the examination." I frowned, looking at the less than flattering cover, but knew it was a necessity.
I changed quickly, and Alyssa began her exam. "Breathe deep, hold it." The stethoscope was cool against my bare skin. Alyssa listened intently, moving the stethoscope around. The exam moved swiftly and after it was over, Alyssa nodded.
"Good news?" I said.
"You're as healthy as a horse," Alyssa said. "But what can you expect from someone who has goddess given healing? What I wouldn't give for that now." She smiled, knowing its a secret I share with only one or two people. "Off hand, I'd say you have the body of a woman much younger than your 29 years."
"Hey watch it Doctor. Or I'll tell YOUR age." That brought a laugh and I began dressing again, sitting on the exam table as Alyssa finished her notes.
"You asked why I had to reschedule your appointment. Have you ever heard of Hickory Grove, Missouri?"
"Should I?" I asked.
"Not really. There have been a few things in the paper, but it's been pretty well kept quiet. Some sort of disease has broken loose there. Early indications are it's a variation on the bubonic plague. So far, it's been quarantined to a few families. But the CDC asked for a few volunteers to help contain the disease and to do further studies. It's a mutation, as I said, and normal antibiotics aren't working."
"So why you?"
"My background in immunology research and immunization make me a good candidate for the research team. And I WANT to go Athena. Not for any notoriety, but because I can do some good. Isn't that why you do it?"
I nodded. "That's exactly why. That whole, 'with great power comes great responsibility' thing. So when do you go?"
"My flight is tomorrow. I fly into Joplin and catch a ride with a truck from Tipton pharmaceuticals. Any time a large dose of drugs is shipped , a doctor has to ride along to verify nothing was changed out."
"Sounds like it's a terrific opportunity for you," I said. "Be careful Alyssa, I don't want you to get hurt. I'd hate to break in a new doctor."
"I don't think you'll need to. I'm off to the lab, rather than the hospitals. So I'll be getting my hands dirty in clean rooms, so to speak."
My stomach gurgled, and Alyssa laughed.
"Lets go get this taken care of," I said. "My treat."
"All right, but this still doesn't excuse you from paying the bill for service rendered," Alyssa chided.
After a delicious and decadent lunch, I bid Alyssa goodbye and caught a late flight back to Queen City. Alyssa promised to call me after she got to Joplin and to keep in touch.
I spent the night on a swift patrol, but Queen City seemed too caught up in the first warm nights of spring and crime seemed to have taken the night off. I went to bed relatively early, and slept peacefully.
It was late afternoon when Alyssa's number turned up on my cell phone. "Hey Alyssa," I said. "I thought you were going to Joplin in the morning."
"I've been here since about ten," she replied. "But there was a hold up with the truck from Tipton. Apparently, the original driver got ill, though not with the plague; and they had to scramble to get a backup driver. We've been on the road here about an hour with the first supply of the vaccine. We should be in Hickory Grove in another hour or two. We'll still have time to immunize the city, and possibly save some lives already down with the disease."
"Sounds good to me," I said. I was about to wish Alyssa luck when I heard a loud noise over Alyssa's phone. "What was that?" I asked.
All I got was static. "Alyssa? ALYSSA!!!"
I heard a groan. "The truck..ambush...unnnhhh."
Through the telephone I heard people scrambling through thick brush. Voices, harsh and masculine. "Truck appears all right sir."
"Who's in the cab with the driver?"
"The doctor. It's a woman!"
While the drama was unfolding on my cell phone, I pulled my White Owl phone from my purse and dialed Captain Winslow. "Captain, it's White Owl," I said, trying to maintain an urgent but not panicked tone.
"Good to hear from you," said Winslow. "What's up?"
"A truck hijacking, near Hickory Grove Missouri. Can you get their police alerted?"
Yeah I can do that, but it may take them some time to get there. I'll let the Missouri State troopers know, too."
"Fantastic," I replied. "Oh and one more thing."
"What's that?"
"Let them know I'm coming--should be there in about four hours."
"You got it."
I closed the "Owl-phone" and listened intently to Alyssa's drama.
"Hey she's a doc, right?"
"Pete and Barney are in pretty sad shape. Maybe she can fix 'em up."
"All right, dump the driver and bring the doctor. But make it quick, the cops will be here soon." There was a pause, and I heard the last voice say, " Maybe even sooner. She's got a cell phone open and on." Alyssa's line went dead.
Five minutes seemed a long time as I swiftly changed. Never before had the NuSilk seemed so constricting and grasping as I tried to pull it over my form. But I soon was aloft and on my way to Missouri.
I landed in Hickory Grove near midnight and was met by the Sheriff, Greg Saunders. An older lawman, he still stood straight and whipcord thin. His dark hair was just starting to grow gray and an aura of easy authority hung on his shoulders. "Glad to meet you Ms Owl, jest wish it had been under better circumstances."
"The pleasure is mine," I said, taking his hand. "What's the situation?"
"We found the truck, empty. No sign of the doctor or the medicine. The driver was in pretty bad shape too. There were helicopter tracks near the truck. Mah guess is they off loaded the vaccine into a chopper and flew it outta here." Saunders handed me a slip of paper.
This came in about an hour ago, White Owl. Their demands for the ransom."
I studied it intently. "Ten Million Dollars?"
"Yep, an' no chance of Hickory Grove gainin' that much in the 24 hours they gave us." Saunders nodded and I looked over my shoulder to see a heavy man in a white lab coat approaching.
"Is this her?" he asked the sheriff.
"Yeah," Sheriff Saunders replied. "Doctor Westin, meet White Owl. I was just apprisin' her of the situation." Westin was maybe 5'6" tall, round where Saunders was thin and balding where Saunders still had a full head of hair.
Westin shook my hand without emotion and said, "Thank God you're here. You brought the vaccine, right?"
"I did not. I am here for other reasons."
Westin glared at me and said, "They gave us a 24 hour deadline White Owl, but I don't have that much time. I have 15 people in a ward over at the hospital dyin' of this plague an' in 24 hours we'll have more. The genie's out of the bottle right now and this vaccine would save lives."
"Do you have time to get more?" I asked.
"Not in time. Tipton shipped all they had, and they were the only ones working on this."
I turned to look at Sheriff Saunders. "Do you have the number for the Joplin airport? I need to check something out."
Saunders looked surprised, but nodded. Twenty minutes later, and using the sheriff's authority I had the answer I wanted.
"Air traffic included an unidentified helicopter in the area about five hours ago. They tracked it to someplace called Baptiste Mountain?"

Saunders pointed at a topographical map of the area. "Sure! Nothin' there though except an old monastery. Benedictine order owned it. It was abandoned about forty years ago though. The vineyards are only so much bramble now, and no one goes there."
"Sounds like a place for the rats to gather," I said. "And there's no better rat catcher than an owl." I put my hand on the Sheriff's shoulder and added, "Get your deputies and meet me out there in three hours or so."
"You can't go alone!" both Saunders and Westin said, almost in unison.
"I can't bring an army, either, I said. "They'd spot us a mile away and begin to use us for target practice. Alone, I have a chance to get the drop on them. I need to get moving, there are lives at stake. I'll see you soon Sheriff."
I turned to leap into the air and felt Westin's hammy fist on my bare shoulder. "White Owl, NO! You were exposed to me and to the Sheriff! YOU could have the disease."
I shook the arm off and leapt into the air. "Sorry Doctor, something in my ear, I can't hear you." I flew off into the night, praying my healing factor would be able to stop any bugs I picked up from the doctor.
My prayers didn't seem to have any effect. My insides were churning and I could feel my vision blurring. Apparently, the accelerated healing also applied to accelerated symptoms of an unknown disease. I saw Baptiste Mountain looming in the moonlight, and brought myself down in the woods at the foot of the monastery.

"Better climb from here," I thought. "I can hug the mountain and make it harder for them to see." One advantage to my powers is that I can free climb without any any pitons or ropes, but if I'd been infected, it was taking a toll on me.

I reached for a rock spur, and watched the ground blur again, my head pounding. But a vision of Alyssa also was in my head and I spurred myself upward. The yards of the bluff dropped below as I ascended and as I reached the top, I saw no activity in back of the monastery. Right above me was a broken stained glass window. I leaped onto the sill and saw three men milling among the pillars. I couldn't see Alyssa, but I knew I needed to act.

I covered my eyes and jumped through the window, my left foot kicking one man in the chin and sending him reeling backward.

Behind me, I heard someone shout, "Look out boss, it's White Owl." The boss dropped to the floor, and I landed a bit harder than I planned. Shakily I got to my feet and saw five other men I threw a bop ball, striking a second man and dropping him to the floor with a heavy thud. He groaned once and stopped moving. I dropped behind a set of crates marked Tipton and considered my options.
"Stop her you fool! She's only one woman!" A large man with a beret seemed to be giving orders. Since the boss was out, he must be the lieutenant. I threw a paint ball, striking him in the face. Orange paint smeared his glasses and his rifle shot went high, rebounding off the marble font.
Rolling out from behind the crates I sprung to my feet and decked a fourth man.

I stood, gasping for breath, losing myself for a moment. I heard guns clicking on either side of me. I looked to my left and right, spotting the last two goons aiming pistols at me. "They have me flanked," I thought. "And I can barely stand."

I felt my knees buckle and dropped to the floor. "So why stand, when these goons are dumb enough to shoot one another?" Above me the two pistols barked, and each man groaned, clutching non-fatal wounds.

The stone floor was cool against my fevered skin. I struggled to stand up; knowing I had to find Alyssa. Was she even still alive? I had to hope she was.

I got to one knee and wiped my head with a NuSilk glove. Behind me I heard the click of a pistol being cocked. Whirling, I heard the sound and shrieked in pain as a bullet ripped through my left shoulder. Three more bullets flattened against my NuSilk leotard, in a tight grouping between my breasts. I groaned, clutching at my wounded shoulder and dropped to the floor again. From the shadows of a large support pillar, the boss loomed over me.

"You counted me out too early, White Owl," he said, stepping into the light and aiming his gun. "Fatal mistake. And since it appears you're bulletproof around your heart, this one will go right between your eyes."
"Keep gloating," I thought, using my right arm to release one more ball from my belt. I threw the ball, shakily, past the boss's shoulder. He laughed, but the gun never wavered in his hand.
"Your aim is off a little there, birdie. I assume that the disease is eating you up inside, making it impossible to aim correctly. Not that it matters, because in approximately two seconds you'll be dea..."

BOOOOOMM!!! The flash-bang grenade exploded behind him, shifting the heavy granite cross over the boss' head. The cross tumbled over landing with a heavy thud on the boss' head and his gun spoke once more, shattering the remaining rosette window. He dropped to the floor, unconscious under the heavy icon.

"I...I think you counted ME out too soon," I said, drooping unconscious against the vaccines.

I don't know how long I lay there, but the next thing I saw was the familiar and concerned face of Alyssa shaking me. "White Owl? Are you all right?" Behind her, I could see Sheriff Saunders and his deputies taking the gang members prisoner.

"I feel ... Can you give me a shot of that vaccine? Then maybe you and Doctor Westin can get it down to Hickory Grove and maybe save some lives."

Alyssa smiled. "Count on it. But you're not going anywhere for about twenty four hours. I'd say it would take about that long for your wound to heal too."
I nodded, then drifted off again as the EMTs loaded me on the gurney.
The End. (disclaimer--Adapted FREELY from World's Finest 245 a Vigilante story by Bill Kunkel and art by Gray Morrow)