JUSTICE LEAGUE

39

Exposed
 

The rain started as soon as Oreo Avenger found the payphone. She huddled close to it as she dialed, trying to keep out of the sharp, cold downpour. This new outfit didn’t have a waterproof cape attached and her hat wasn’t big enough to do more than keep her hair dry.

“Hello, Justice League.”

“Hi…Johnny Tsunami?”

“Jo Surf.”

“Oh, right. Sorry about that.”

“No worries.”

“Are the others around?”

A pause, as Jo presumably checked the area. “I don’t see them.”

“Okay, then tell Rosma that the eagle is in the chicken coop.”

“What?”

“Tell her…never mind. Are the police there?”

A pause, longer this time. “…no?”

“Very convincing,” Oreo said, hanging up. Very calmly, she walked away from the phone. A few seconds later, the whine of sirens announced the arrival of the police cars. The roar of helicopters filled the sky. Oreo joined the crowd of curious bystanders, pulling her floppy hat low. It was a fashionable floppy hat, one that coordinated perfectly with her outfit. The crowd quickly dispersed as nothing else interesting happened.

Oreo resisted the urge to turn around and check if anyone was watching. She felt so exposed, walking through the city without her mask. Any moment someone could recognize her and call the police down. Of course, not many people knew how she looked barefaced. She’d been very careful about that. Still, she touched her face every few seconds where her mask should be.

The walk back to the Apartment was long. The city seemed so much larger when she was confined to the ground. Oreo jumped in a puddle and smiled as the water splashed away. She jumped in another and giggled. Puddles were the best part of rainstorms.

“You really need to get cable in here,” Scarlett said as Oreo came back.

“I don’t come here to watch TV,” Oreo replied, shaking out her hair.

“What did you do to your new clothes?!” Scarlett shrieked.

“Well…um…look, I’m on TV!”

Indeed, to the left of the smiling anchorman floated a picture of Oreo Avenger. Scarlett turned up the TV.

“…just received word that Oreo Avenger has been caught in the middle of a jewelry heist. We are going to go live to Herkimer Jewelers where Deborah Walters is already on the scene. Deborah? What’s the situation down there?”

“It’s a standoff, Will.” The screen showed Deborah Walters, holding an umbrella in one hand and a microphone in the other. Red and blue lights flashed in the background.

“Police have come to the scene here at Herkimer Jewelers, where a woman who has been identified as Oreo Avenger has trapped herself inside the building. Police have made numerous attempts to negotiate with Oreo Avenger and there is no word on what the hostage situation is just yet.”

The camera panned to a shot of the jewelry store, where the dim figure of Oreo Avenger could be seen crouching by the doors. While the camera was off her, Deborah adjusted the umbrella so the rain wouldn’t touch her hair.

“It looks like it’s true,” Deborah continued, putting on her Sad Face. “Oreo Avenger has officially joined the ranks of the criminals. We’ve talked to sources at the police department, and word from the inside is that police are getting increasingly hostile towards masked vigilantes. We hear they’ve been waiting for a moment just like this to prove their point. We are going to stay on the scene until…”

From the safety of the cars, Detective Hall raised the megaphone to his mouth again. He’d been doing it every fifteen minutes, trying to spark a response from inside.

“Make it easy on yourself and come out with your mask off and your hands up!”

“Please allow me,” Oreo Avenger said, flying by. “I’d love to have a talk with this girl.”

Landing on a second story ledge, she examined the glass of the wall, looking for a way in. “I know you have a job to do, but I really think I can take care of this in-“

“Get your hands on your head!”

Oreo blinked at the officers. “Oh, come on. You’re talking to the actual Oreo Avenger now, so I’m obviously not robbing anything in there while talking to you out here.”

The chilling sound of dozens of guns being cocked filled the air. “You have until the count of three!”

“Listen! I am not robbing anything! I am here to help!” Oreo held up her hands placatingly.

“Take her down!” Detective Hall screamed, and suddenly the air filled with booms and bullets. The window behind Oreo shattered. Oreo took off, dodging gunfire as best she could. BAM, a searing pain through her shoulder and the world was spinning and the ground was rushing closer and CRUNCH. She lay amid the broken glass, dimly aware of the police surrounding her, gun trained on her, ever vigilant for tricks.

“STAY DOWN!”

“DON’T YOU MOVE!”

“DON’T YOU MOVE A MUSCLE OR I WILL BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF!!”

Oreo could do nothing but groan in response. She’d forgotten how much gunshot wounds hurt.

One officer held her down while another wrenched her arms back to slap the cuffs on. Oreo tried hard not to scream.

An elephant’s trumpeting roar broke through the yells, along with the sound of police cars merrily being smashed to bits. The officers holding Oreo loosened their grip for a second, and in that second Oreo was gone, flying frantically to the safety of the sky.

“Get her!”

“FREEZE!”

“Do not move!”

Bullets hailed around her, none striking. Oreo looked back. “I didn’t do any-AAGGH!” She misjudged the height of the building and slammed directly into the decorations on the edge of the roof.

On top of the building, Oreo took a moment’s rest. She poked the shoulder. Agony. Unsteadily, she stood. The police would catch up any minute. As if summoned by her thoughts, the unwelcome beat of helicopter blades approached.

“This is the police!” the pilot yelled. Beside her, her partner readied the guns. “Freeze where you…hey, where’s she go?”

Police swarmed around the building, searching for a sign of the fugitive. In a nearby dumpster, Oreo Avenger tried to wrap her cape around the wound. It burned. All the garbage must have infected it. The steady patter of the rain faded as the world turned black around the edges. She never thought it’d end like this.

***

Scarlett made it to a back alley, surprised she wasn’t being followed, though the sounds of sirens and shots weren’t too far off. And an elephant in the middle of the City wouldn’t exactly go unnoticed. She needed to demorph.

She closed her eyes as she focused on the image of herself in a skintight red leotard. She cringed as she heard the first crunches of her bones beginning to rearrange. This time was worse than normal. She shrunk quickly, but her skin didn’t. As massive grey folds of skin pressed in around her, she started to panic.

Stop it stop it stop it! she chanted as everything started to turn grey. But if she stopped now, she’d suffocate. Scarlett willed herself to finish demorphing.

When it was over, she fell to the ground, tears streaking her face. “Well,” she managed, “at least my nightmares’ll have some new material to work with.” She laughed sardonically, and picked herself up from the filthy street. She retrieved her dress and heels from behind an uninhabited cardboard box, dressing herself quickly. She started back for the Apartment of Solitude, cutting through more alleys to get there quickly and unnoticed.

“Oreo had better be thankful I went through that to save h-“ she broke off as a dumpster up ahead rattled loudly. A perfectly accessorized arm reached out, grasping for something to grip onto.

“Oreo?” Scarlett hissed, running up to the dumpster. A bloodied Oreo Avenger lay inside. “Oh, my God!”

After a few minutes of struggling, Scarlett somehow pulled Oreo out. “Oh, my God! Oreo! What happened?”

“Mmmmm…Not doing so well…”

“Oh, my God, Oreo! We have to get you to a hospital!”

“They’ll arrest me! I don’t-I don’t know what to do.”

“We have to call your dad!”

“No. No, we can’t.”

“We have to!”

“No! My…my mom. UGH!” Oreo hollered as she touched the bullet hole. “My mother was-this will-this will kill him.” She poked the wound again, in disbelief. “Aagghh! I don’t know what to do.”

“I think I do.”

******Five Minutes Later, Half a Block From the Nearest Hospital******

“Aahh! Red?! Is everything red with you?!”

“You remember what I told you…” Scarlett threw away the top of the can, spraying as they walked.

“Why do you carry red spray-in hair dye?”

“Why do you carry that tacky Oreo satchel with you everywhere?”

“They’ll call the cops. I’m-ahh!” Oreo cried as Scarlett finished the temporary hair dying. “That stuff stinks. And my hair is already red, in case you didn't notice.”

“I know...oh, crap. You're right. I grabbed the wrong can." Scarlett fumbled in her pocket for the other. Black. She started spraying again. "Oreo, you have to do this. Just-just do it. I’ll be here,” Scarlett said as they reached the entrance to the ER. Oreo stumbled forward, blood still spewing from the gun wound.

“Oh, my…” a woman waiting near the entrance gasped as she caught sight of Oreo. Oreo made it a few more steps, then collapsed at the front desk, almost knocking over one of the doctors.

“Kid! Hey, kid! Can you hear me?” the doctor asked.

“Yo! She just came in here and fell over!” one of the interns yelled.

“Doctor! She’s been shot!”

“There’s no ID.” The doctor looked up at Scarlett, who was standing off to the side. “Is she with you?”

“What? No. No! I’m here with my-“

“Get her into four or two! Stat!”

Scarlett shrank back next to the wall as she watched them load Oreo onto a gurney, shouting medical terms left and right.

“Number 8 ET tube. What’s her BP?”

“A and O times four. BP’s 132 over 82. Pulse 110.”

“Hold on, pulse OX is low, 82.”

“Give me four units of O negative, hang two on the rapid infuser.”

They wheeled Oreo through a set of double doors, out of Scarlett’s sight.

***

So Raven, Twisk, and Jo Surf went on the first ever...dayhawking expedition. And true to Twisk's word, there was nothing. Not even a couple of guys trading insults in a bar. Not even a kid stealing a pack of gum from the supermarket. It was a crimeless city.

The trio turned up a dark alley, where a cloud of police passed them. "Get out of here, you masked freaks." one hissed in passing. Raven glared and Twisk muttered under her breath, but the police had gone. There was a passing silence, followed by Jo Surf speeyacking operatically on the sidewalk. Twisk and Raven watched.

"Are you okay?" yelled Twisk over the loud retching.

"Bad casserole?" Jo Surf said with a weak grin.

"Idiot!"

"Come on, we'll just drag him back to the Hall." sighed Raven.

They set off, the two girls supporting Jo Surf between them.

"Have you ever noticed how many different ways there are to say 'throwing up'? There's vomiting, of course. Hurling. Tossing your cookies. Puking, a classic. Ralphing. There's cascading. But I prefer the terms that are more real. Like blowing chunks. Spewing your guts."

"There's a hospital right up that way." interrupted Twisk. "They could give us something or pump his stomach or whatever."

***

Twisk and Raven handed Jo Surf off to a nurse and went outside to wait. They had passed a woman dressed in red coming in, but they hadn't taken note. The woman was still there, pacing back and forth. Raven frowned, and realized that the woman looked familiar.

"Scarlett?"

***

Roseidous parked the spaceship in a clearing in the forest. He, Sally, and Studmuffin got back inside the van, drove it out of the spaceship’s cargo hold, and headed down a narrow path through the trees.

“I still have no idea why you were looking for me,” Studmuffin said.

“My only cousin? You go missing for over a year and don’t even bother to call when you get back?”

“Yeah, I’ve been busy.”

Who is this guy? Pothead asked.

He iz very odd, Mughead said.

You don’t even know the half of it, Fred told the Seekers. Wait till you meet the rest of them.

Studmuffin shook his head, surprised. Fred hadn’t spoken for a while, at least a few days.

“Right?” Roseidous’ voice broke through the others; he was still rambling on about something.

“Um, sorry. What?”

“I said that Holli and Tails think you’re hot. But how could they resist us? We’re two good-looking guys, right?”

“Oh. Yes. Right.”

“You must just be tired.” Roseidous nodded. “It is only ten. The girls probably aren’t up yet. I hope. The whole spaceship thing is our secret, if they ask. You decided to come here on your own. And if someone offers you a cookie, don’t take it. Holli and Tails might try to get you to play a game called “Duct Tape The Chicken On The Tree” but it’s not wise to be on Tyrael’s team…”

Does he ever bloody shut up? Jarhead complained.

“….Anyway, I’m glad you’re here. We could always use extra guys. And just wait until you meet the clones. You didn’t get to talk to them at the Prom, did you? That was a busy night. Don’t remind anyone about that; they still blame me for everything. It’s not my fault Roses didn’t make extra lists. She should have known that I don’t have time to save everything in organized files like she does….”

The van broke out of the trees onto a wider path. Roseidous followed the path to a group of cabins. He parked in front of a larger one. People were sitting on the steps. Four girls, one guy, a man in lipstick, a ferret, and a squirrel.

“…Um…uh-oh.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Be prepared to run. Watch out for the pointy sticks, the rope, and the whip.”

“What?!”

One of the girls, the one with long brown hair, stood up. Roses, he remembered.

“Rosey!” she yelled. “If you get out of that van and run, you will regret it! Bubba is talking his morning walk in the woods!”

“On second thought, don’t run,” Roseidous advised Studmuffin. “The whip is better.”

“Just where have you been?” Roses demanded, marching up to the driver’s window.

Ann followed her. “And with my spaceship, too! I had to get up early because Stan noticed it was missing! Before noon! If you broke it…”

“Ann! Roses! Good morning! Don’t yell at me in front of our guest.”

Roses glanced through the window. “Sally? Sally is not a guest. If she could talk, she’d help us yell at you, too!”

“No, not Sally. I went to get my cousin. You remember Studmuffin?”

“From the Justice League. A lot of help they were.” Roses frowned. “And did you even bother to ask if you could have company? What if we were doing something today?”

Studmuffin didn’t get to hear the rest of that argument. Holli and Tails opened his door and dragged him out before he could react.

“Studmuffin! How are you?” Tails grinned.

“Good to see you again!” Holli steered him towards the cabin. “Breakfast? Murry was making toast, I think. Maybe he didn’t burn it this time. When he gets annoyed, he can’t control the fire shooting out of his eyes, you know.”

“Er…do you have any chilidogs?”

“Nope, don’t think so. Vic can get you some, though. We’ll send Tyrael to ask for them.”

***

A few hours later, Studmuffin sat on the front steps with the Junior Tri-Leaders.

“So you got it now?” Tails asked.

“I think so. Roses, Ann, and Roseidous are probably still fighting. Sally is waiting for Roseidous because she is his personal assistant. Stan is checking the spaceship to see if Roseidous broke it. Bubba is a giant penguin, but his is not green or radioactive, he is not related to X-Raytor, and he does not want to take over the world. The guy with the makeup is Vinnie, the squirrel is the security guard, a floating skull wants to kill me, a two-headed robot is coming over later, the garden gnome got me chilidogs, the mailman is not Brad Pitt, and some clones want me to schedule a massage tonight.”

“Yep. That’s it! Welcome to our camp!”

“Thanks,’ he paused. “I haven’t said that much in over a year.”

“What can I say? The forest is good for you.”

Zhese people are insane. All of zhem.

I know. I told you, Fred laughed.

So when are we leaving? We should get oot of here, Keghead said.

“Where were you? For a whole year?” Holli asked. “Apparently, according to our sources, the world wants to know.”

“I was…around. Different countries.”

“Like where?” she batted her eyelashes at him.

“Like places he doesn’t want to tell you,” Tyrael spoke up. The two girls turned to glare at him. “Was that out loud? Um…I think I have to go do something now.”

“That reminds me. You do have something to do. Vinnie found a new type of plant in the woods. He wants someone to eat it to see if it’s poisonous. Let’s go help him!” Tails stood up.

“I’d rather not.”

“Unfortunately, you have to,” she produced some rope from her pockets.

“Want to come with us, Studmuffin?” Holli offered, grabbing Tyrael’s wrists.

“Well…I…”

“Good afternoon!” Ann approached them. “Girls, I need you to come with me to the Moonbase. You have to clean up that mess you made with the Jello yesterday. And Tyrael, you’re supposed to go order some pizzas. Send one to the Fortress, one to the Moonbase, and one here. And Rosey said something about needing you to help him repaint the kitchen, whatever that means.”

Holli and Tails giggled.

Ann sighed. “What did you do to his kitchen? No, wait, nevermind. I don’t want to know. Studmuffin, since we’re all leaving, Roses said you could stay here in one of the cabins. Lots of room. I think Rosey just put up a hammock next to his, if you want to try it out.”

“More like Tyrael put up the hammock,” Tyrael complained.

“Yes. Come on, girls. Stan said the spaceship is just fine. Rosey is lucky.”

***

Studmuffin drifted slowly back and forth in the hammock. The late afternoon sun filtered through the trees, making patterns on the grass. The only noise came from the wind in the trees and the sounds of animals in the forest. Occasionally, he thought he heard a squirrel overhead, but he didn’t worry about it. He was busy listening to something else.

We really do have to go. There’s no reason for us to be here,’Fred was saying.

“Why? There’s no where else I have to be, either.” Studmuffin argued.

Oi think we should go to Antarctica, Jughead suggested.

Yes, zhat iz a great idea, Herr Jughead. We have unfinished business zhere. People to talk to. Intellects to save.

“That is the last place we are going.”

Oh, come on. You know you want to destroy them. They are the reason we’re in your head, after all. They’re the reason your wife is-

“Stop it.”

But it’s true. You can’t just avoid it.

“Yes. I can.”

You mean we have to stay here forever? I’ll bet the Intellect know how to get us out.

“No. You only want me to go there because it would help them.”

We should just make you go. We could.

“You can’t control me.”

We did it once, remember? The prison? All those people? We could let them remind you.

Studmuffin vaguely heard the roar of voices returning. He couldn’t do anything to stop it. They grew louder and louder in his head. He sat up, clutching his ears. Some of the voices were screaming.

“No! Go away!” he yelled, trying to make himself heard over the noise.

He tried to get up, to do something to get away, but he was tangled in the hammock. It flipped over, depositing him on the ground. The voices stopped abruptly. Studmuffin looked around.

“What’s your problem?” Roses asked, leaning against one of the trees.

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Telling the voices in your head to go away is not a good sign,” she offered him a hand, pulling him to his feet.

“There aren’t any voices in my head,” he insisted, internally panicking that she somehow knew.

“Oh, you were talking to what? The sky? The hammock?”

“I wasn’t talking to anything.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “Yeah, okay. Sure you weren’t. The pizza is here, if you want any.”

Roses turned and walked back towards her own cabin. Studmuffin hurried to catch up.

“So why are you here?” she glanced at him.

“I don’t know. Roseidous told me to get in the van, and I did.”

“You didn’t have to. You wanted to get inside, for some reason.”

“You saw the news report, didn’t you?”

She opened the door to the cabin and gestured for him to go inside. “I have my sources, yes. I don’t know what’s going on out East with you superhero people, but I have to say that I’m glad it’s there and not here. You people seem to have more issues than John. He’s enough for me to deal with.”

He almost laughed. “You have no idea. Why do you watch news about us, anyway?”

Roses did laugh, sitting down on the bed with the pizza box. “I’m trying to take over the world and you’re trying to save it. I have to keep up with you.”

“What are you going to do about us if you are successful?” he joined her.

“I have no idea. I’m hoping that the Justice League won’t get in our way. It’s not like we can put you in the coal mines, because we can’t keep you there. Maybe we’ll just have to have a friendly alliance. You can help us out,” she shrugged. “I haven’t thought about it too much. I have to figure out what to do with John first.”

“You are all insane.”

“I know. But so are you. We may talk to animals, but at least we don’t talk to voices in our heads.”

Studmuffin froze while reaching for a slice of pizza. Then he sighed. “I can’t tell you anything. Not where I’ve been, not what I know, nothing. Sorry.”

“Of course you can’t tell me. We hardly know each other. Even though you’re technically my cousin, too. By adoption or whatever. The point is, if you can’t tell any of us, who can you tell? Those voices? I don’t think you get along with them.”

That’s an understatement, Jarhead muttered.

“Anyway,” she continued. “I just think you should tell someone what’s going on. Want to use the phone to call the League?”

“I doubt any of them care. I haven’t exactly been there lately, and I haven’t been very friendly since I got back.”

“None of them care? I’m sure someone does.”

A face flashed in Studmuffin’s head. “Maybe.”

“Well,” Roses finished her pizza and closed the box. “Whether they do or not, you’re going to have to call them. Someone needs to come pick you up, because Ann’s going to have the spaceship for a few days. And you need to go home.”

“Why should I go back there? They were just fine without me when I left.”

Roses nodded. “You really haven’t seen the news lately. I’m thinking you should get back. You’ll see. The phone is in the kitchen.”

***

“Hall of Justice, no interviews, please.”

“Eric, is that you? This is Studmuffin.”

“Studmuffin! Where have you been all day?”

“I’ll tell you later. Let me talk to Rosma.”

***

“Hey Mike, has she moved?”

“Nope, out cold.”

“Her vital signs are strong.”

“Strong? They’re through the roof.”

Oreo’s eyes fluttered open in the too-bright room. Her head felt all floaty.

“Oh, finally, here comes the police.”

“Officer?”

“Doctor Connors?”

“Yes. Thank you for responding.”

“What do we got?”

Strange smells, strange voices. Oreo looked around the room. A curtain hung around her bed, separating her from the world.

“We got a Jane Doe. Kid comes in-gunshot wound to the shoulder.”

“Not too unusual.”

“That’s what I thought, but…”

“She’s not wearing the shirt she was shot in.”

Oreo could just make out a group of shadowy figures beyond the curtain. Two wore the threatening hats of cops.

“Wait, she changed her shirt before she came in?”

“That’s what I said! You don’t se that every day.”

“No ID on her?”

“Nothing. Shirt. Pants. Nice clothes.”

Oreo gently touched the bandages wrapped around her shoulder. She pushed harder. No pain.

“It’s a kid. I’d say…seventeen years old.”

“Early twenties.”

“Is she awake yet?”

“Not yet.”

A hand parted the curtain, a hand attached to the blue suit of a police officer. Oreo quickly started removing tubes from her arm.

“Let her sleep because we just-“

The officer overrode Doctor Connor’s objections. “I’m going to see if I can get a name out of her,” he said, pulling the curtain aside. “So that I can process a-“

They stared in shock at the empty bed. The heart monitor loudly flatlined.

Doctor Connors was the first to react. “Ted, call Frank on the third floor! We got an MIA!”

The security guard raised his walkie talkie to his mouth.

“I was standing here the entire time,” the nurse said, disbelief showing on her face. “I swear, I never left this spot!”

Above the ceiling tiles, Oreo carefully replaced the missing one. She flew unsteadily away.

“I swear,” the nurse repeated. “We never-we never left her alone.”

***

"Scarlett, what are you doing here?"

Scarlett stopped. "What the--what are ya'll doing here?"

"Day-hawking."

"Day-hawking? Since when do we...hawk...in the daylight?"

"Surfer boy's scared of the dark, remember?

"Get him a flashlight." Scarlett leaned on one foot, trying to glance down a hallway, but a pair of double doors blocked the view.

"So what are you here for, Scarlett?"

"I--uh-"

"Hey!" A cop burst through the double doors. "Did--did a patient come through here?"

The people in ER waiting area (Scarlett and the others included) just stared back. "Who wants to tell him hospitals usually have a few patients running around?" Twisk whispered.

"Hello?!! Any of you! Anybody see a patient come through here?"

Scarlett gripped Oreo's Oreo Satchel a little more tightly. She started to edge toward the exit. The cop shook his head in frustration, and turned from the waiting area briefly, though his voice still carried. "Doc, lock the ward down and call your security force down here...now!" There was a loud scratching as someone turned a Walkie-Talkie on. Another voice spoke, loud enough for everyone to hear even before the man it belonged to barged through the doors.

"This is E.R. 4. I need as many security guards as you have on duty...and call up to Psych and see if they can spare any order--" he broke off as Scarlett and the Oreo Satchel made a break for the exit. "Hey!! You!!"

Scarlett looked back over her shoulder, stopping for a second.

"Yeah, you!!"

Scarlett bolted, the Oreo Satchel firmly in her grasp. A trio of security guards quickly brushed past the others, chasing after her. "Hey! Stop!!"

But years of literally running late for church choir had trained her well. Even in sexy red heels, Scarlett easily outran them.

***

Back in the hospital, Raven glanced at Jo, now surrounded by a gaggle of nurses, male and female. He seemed to have recovered pretty quickly. She decided it was time for them to get back to the Hall.

"Jo! Come on, we're going back to the Hall!"

He practically bounced up to Raven and Twisk. "How long have we been gone?"

"Maybe an hour."

"Awesome. Righteous Wing Dude should be done with my room."

"What?"

"He doesn't like the nightlight. But there's this empty linen closet under the stairs. He said he'd put my bed there so I could keep the nightlight on and he could still sleep. Groovy of him, huh?"

"You're going to live in a closet?"

"Dude, I keep my nightlight. It works."

"A linen closet?"

"It's that or sleep in my X-Terra, but there's no room for Barbara Ann inside the X-Terra. And she doesn't like to be alone at night."

"Barbara Ann?"

Jo Surf patted his yellow surfboard. "Barbara Ann."

***

"Carl? You busy?"

Carl Rosen looked up at her from his cluttered desk. "Sera. No, I'm just finishing up this frakakta-- anyway, what's up?"

Seraphina Braddock stepped into the office and closed the door behind her. She had long ago gotten over any trepidation of approaching her editor-- she was only twenty-three, yes, and she had started working at The Sentinel as an intern, in her sophomore year at the University, but she'd risen through the ranks since then. She was "Staff Writer Seraphina Braddock," now, out of the University and into the real world of journalism. Talking to her editor was the least of her worries.

"It's about the lead story tomorrow," Sera said.

Carl nodded slowly, and folded his hands. "We talked about this at the five o'clock."

"I know. I know," Sera said. "And the story's written, the presses are running-- I know. I just wanted to say, on record, that I have a bad feeling about this."

"Join the club," Carl said. "But I checked all of the sources. I had Maureen check it all out too. Everything in there is factual."

"Yeah," she said. "Maureen showed me the story, and it all looked legit… but I think there's something off about it. Maybe-- doesn't it seem, like, a little biased to you?"

"Well, they didn't return his calls," Carl said. "And the only way it would be biased is if they didn't have a chance to respond."

"And you're sure he called them?"

"What he said."

"Did you try calling?"

"If they weren't going to talk to him…"

"Still…"

"Sera," Carl said. "Please. I know you're worried. It's a big story, I'm sort of worried too. Hell, I'm practically wetting myself right now. This is big, and it's certainly the biggest thing that George has ever done. I made extra sure that it was airtight."

Sera sighed. "I'll take your word for it."

"Don't worry about it," Carl said. "Besides, if that story has the effect that I think it will, we're going to have a lot more to worry about very soon."

***

"Yo yo yo
Throw yo' hands in the air!
Put 'em up high
Or we'll cap you right there!" One of the boys said.

He was holding a gleaming silver handgun, and there was a fabric mask over his eyes, with two holes poked into it. He was wearing a red doo rag and about a ton of costume jewelry necklaces and chains around his neck. He looked exactly the part of every suburbanite's nightmare of an urban youth.

Incidentally, he was the only black member of the group. And all three of the teens were wearing too many trademark clothes and were too well manicured to actually be urban… but they put on a good show anyway.

"My name's big DC," the boy announced.
"I ain't no Capitol
But you f*** me an' I'll cap it all
Tap it all
Zap it all
And here I'm gonna rap it all!"

One of the white boys stepped up, with his own pistol. He was wearing a similar mask, and above that a backward baseball cap. He pointed to the two letters stitched into the cap: EZ.

"You heard what my man
DC said
Hand over your cash
Or we'll shoot you all dead!"

The other white boy, who was wearing a big silver jersey with TT on the back, provided a beat, while holding his pistol sideways, in what is commonly referred to as "ghetto style."

DC continued:

"This is our turf now
So you better right hear
We ain't never leave the City
'Cause my n***az all here!"

EZ blinked, and then lowered his pistol. "Uh, DC? Don't you think that's a little pejorative?"

"What? 'N***az'?" DC asked. "I'm not usin' it in a racial way, man."

"Well, still, I think it's a little offensive. Yo."

"Dude, if anyone should be gettin' offended it should be me!" DC said. "You don't get offended at that, y'hear? You get offended when I say 'cracker,' all right? Uh, I mean, a'ight?"

"You also sorta broke rhythm back there…" TT said, dropping the beat.


"Man, I was freestylin'!" DC said. "I had to go wit' my gut!"

"This is why I say we should write these things out before we do a heist," TT said.

"Are you f***in' stupid?!" EZ demanded. "Write 'em out? What the f*** you think this is?"

"Just both of you shut the f*** up!!" DC said. "Let's just rob these muthas and get out of here."

The customers in the WaWa (of which there were a few, since it was daytime) had put their arms down while the three wannabe rappers had argued. Now, with the pistols back up, and TT laying down the beat again, they cowered, and slowly began to pull out their wallets and purses and throw them on the floor.

"Gimme all your money
Gimme all your cash
Look at me funny
And I'll pop you in the ass!" EZ said.

"Sweet ABAB rhyming, dude," DC said, as he began to scoop up wallets, tear the money out of them and throw them back on the floor. His friends did the same, TT still keeping the beat.

"Hey, do you guys still have those meatball sand--"

The three rappers/robbers whipped around to see X-Raytor at the door.

"Oops, this isn't Subway." X-Raytor said. "Hey, wait-- weren't you guys in 8 Mile?"

"F***!!" DC said, and raised his pistol. The WaWa customers screamed, but before DC could fire, X-Raytor had shot a pair of crimson beams from his eyes. They singed DC's hand, and the pistol dropped to the floor.

"Who are you guys, anyway?"

"Yo, we're the PG Three!" EZ said.

" 'PG'?"

EZ nodded proudly. " '@#%$ Gettin'.'"

X-Raytor blinked under his mask. "Funny. I'm not surprised."

"Yeah, well, now you gotta deal wit' all three of us, tights boy," said DC, standing up with his pistol. EZ and TT (still doing the beat) had their own guns trained on him.

"Aw, man," X-Raytor said. "And I was hoping I'd get some exercise today…"

Before the PG Three could respond, X-Raytor fired a pair of low level beams at TT. They whacked against his forehead and he faltered, losing the beat. DC and EZ were disoriented for a moment, with no rhythm to go on, and X-Raytor used this to his advantage.

He uppercutted DC quickly, and then slammed into EZ with his shoulder. EZ managed to not fall down and was bringing his gun up--

X-Raytor grabbed EZ's hand and forced it upwards. EZ unloaded a clip into the WaWa's ceiling.

"Nice shooting, Vanilla Ice," X-Raytor said.

He turned quickly and kicked DC's pistol from his hand as the lead rapper tried to get to his knees. X-Raytor shoved his elbow into EZ's face, and he dropped. By then TT had recovered, and he ran at X-Raytor, one fist raised.

X-Raytor stepped out of the way and tripped TT as he went by. TT landed on his face, and tried to push himself up. X-Raytor shoved him back down with his foot. TT tried a last feeble beat, and then gave up.

X-Raytor turned to DC, who was up on one knee, looking dazed and rubbing his chin.

"Hey, man," DC said. "Be cool, okay? We-- we weren't, like, serious or anything. We were just screwin' around, man! I'm not even from around here! Honest! … You're not gonna tell my mom about this, are you?"

"Sure I'm going to tell your mom," X-Raytor said. "When I see her tonight!!"

"Ooooooooooh snap!!" TT said from the floor.

"Hey!! What was that for?!" DC demanded.

"Well, you set me up for it, kid," X-Raytor said.

"Show you to make lame, overused, entirely unoriginal jokes about my momma…" DC said.

He picked up the pistol…

***

Pinzz looked at the grocery list.

Cheese.
Flour.
Coa Coa Puffs.
Cheese.
Coke.
Popcorn.
Cheese.
SlimFast Bars.
Tasty Kakes. (This had "THE PEANUTBUTTER KIND" scrawled next to it)
Cheese.
Pepsi. ("DIET!!!!!")
Bagel Bites.
Chili Dogs. ("LOTS!!!!!!!!")
Cheese.

"Hmm," Pinzz said. "Well, how about… f*** that!"

She crumpled up the list and threw it over her back, and immediately began to cram her cart with all of her favorite snacks. Who card what those other morons wanted? They all had enough cheese anyway. And what did she care if Twisk wanted Diet Pepsi specifically? She could turn into water-- she didn't need to lose any weight! When she passed the meat aisle, she did get a few packs of chili dogs for Studmuffin, though. Because she was nice like that.

She got a little confused trying to find the orange soda, though. She came around a corner and then, there they were. A stack of liter bottles! But, low and behold, there was only one orange soda left, and a pack of teenagers closing fast from the other direction! Pinzz was sure she wouldn't be able to get there before them, which left her one option.

She spun into the nearest aisle, and after checking for anyone who might be watching, or any store security cameras (of which there were none that would catch a glimpse of her), she pressed the activator button behind her ear, and her blue suit quickly covered her. She looked down at her side, where the suit had been cracked fighting the Seekers. There was still a faint white line there. She wondered if it would ever disappear.

But she had more important things to worry about now! She dived out of the aisle, and extended a finger, wrapping it around the orange soda bottle and pulling it towards herself, just as the teenagers caught sight of it.

"Yo-- hey." One of the teens said. The group stopped and looked at Pinzz. She was used to that, of course-- she was a celebrity. But with this group… some of their faces were stony, other openly hostile. What was their problem?

Pinzz looked down, and understood. They were angry about the orange soda. What else? Without saying anything, she dumped the bottle deliberately into her cart and pushed it down the aisle. Of course, she couldn't take her costume off now, not without risking her secret identity, but that was fine. She could get home easier this way, anyway.

Though, the suit did have its drawbacks. The greasy, comic nerd groupies, for instance. And sometimes, she could get a wrinkle in the material (how? She had no idea. She wasn't even sure, exactly, where the costume was from. For all she knew, it was some sort of giant alien condom), and she'd have to de-suit and re-suit again to get rid of it, because if she didn't, it would bother her for the rest of the frigging day…

And there was the more recent drawback. That being the angry looks she'd been getting every time she stepped out the door these days. Whatever that was about.

Stupid f***ing city s***heads, she thought. They get ruder and ruder every f***ing day…

***

Midnight Chatter was channel surfing. He was in the rec room, though it would have been nice to have a TV in his room. A lot of the older members had their own TVs, after all. X-Raytor had one. In fact, X-Raytor had a TiVo (which, Midnight Chatter thought, made sense, since the one downstairs was filled up with whatever the girls wanted to watch. That and Right Wing Man's Captain Capitalism episodes).

He'd tried to persuade X-Raytor to give him his TiVo, after it had been announced that the So Weird fourth season was halting production, and the four episodes that had been aired were going to be taken entirely off the air. X-Raytor had said episodes on his TiVo, but, thing was, he'd also transferred them onto video and DVD. What did he need the TiVo for, anyway? Smallville? They taped Smallville downstairs! But, nooooo, X-Raytor just had to keep his TiVo…

Midnight Chatter flipped past Glorious Gordon Godfrey and The Patsy Walker Show, before coming to a stop at 2013-Something. That one girl, the one with all of the boyfriends, was having an argument with someone. Sad music played as the scene ended. And then that one married couple came onscreen, and suddenly there was a laugh track. Midnight Chatter changed the channel.

Channel Five News. Midnight Chatter rolled his eyes-- the news was all the same these days. Bla bla bla, Oreo Avenger is a bank robber. Bla bla bla, Studmuffin is in cahoots with the Tri-Leaders. Bla bla bla, Fred Seppanen. Bla bla bla, cruise. Bla bla bla, Janet Jackson. It was enough to drive him insane!

He changed the channel.

***

DC landed on his back, just as the police pulled up.

"Looks like you got served," X-Raytor said, walking out of the WaWa with EZ and TT in tow. "Bitch."

"That," DC said, coughing. "Was so f***ing lame."

X-Raytor frowned under his mask. "Yeah, well…" He couldn't think of a follow up for that, so he let it hang and hoped that it sounded tough.

The police handcuffed the PG Three and removed their masks. Then, after checking their shirt tags for their real names (their mommies had written them there, in case they got lost), they drove them down to the station.

"You're gonna pay for this, man!" DC yelled as the police shoved him in the back of one of the cars. "You better watch out, 'cause the PG Three's got your number, and we're gonna-- ooooh, these handcuffs are sorta tight… Owies!"

The police cars drove off.

"Hm," X-Raytor said. "And not so much as a 'thank you.'" He walked back to the WaWa. "Everyone okay in there?"

"Yeah," the clerk called back.

"Okay, good," X-Raytor said. "Uh… have a nice day."

He went back outside to find that the crowd that had assembled during the arrest was still there. X-Raytor grated, hoping he wouldn't have to sign autographs.

"Hey, everyone!" He said, as cheerfully as possible.

No response.

"So, uh, how about those Titans?"

Silence again. A few people scowled.

Sheesh, tough sidewalk, X-Raytor thought. "Okay, okay, a man walks into a bar, and--"

"Stop blockin' the street ya freak!" Someone yelled.

"Hey! This isn't a knock-knock joke!" X-Raytor said. "If I need audience participation, I'll ask!"

"Leave us alone, you weirdo!" Someone else yelled, from the front of the crowd. "You fascist!!"

X-Raytor blinked. "Er… is that a good thing?"

"Man, what's wrong with you?" A man said. "Don't y'all know we don't want you here? All y'all do is mess things up even worse."

"Yeah, and I'm tired of having you capes infringe on our rights!" Someone else said.

"When you're even here!" Another man yelled.

And then the crowd was murmuring in exactly the way that X-Raytor did not want the crowd to be murmuring. These people were spoiling for a fight, it didn't take a genius to see that.

"Uh, you know, you're right!" X-Raytor said. "I haven't really been doing my job lately. Well, uh, hey! How about I go do my job right now? Bye!"

He ran down an alley, up a fire escape, and onto a roof before the crowd could react.

***

Pinzz got in line. She would have gone express, but she certainly didn't have twelve items or less. What a random number twelve was. Who came up with that, anyway? What, you couldn't have, say, thirteen items? Twelve. What a joke.

She reached the cash register and found that her favorite clerk was on the job.

"Well, hello there, Evil Grocery Store Bag Boy." She said.

The Evil Grocery Store Bag Boy, formerly the Evil Grocery Store Manager, glared at her. "Go screw, blue girl."

"Hey, don't make me call the manager," Pinzz said. "Hey, wait, didn't you used to be the manager?"

The Evil Bag Boy muttered something and began to ring up Pinzz's groceries. Pinzz looked over the tabloids on the rack. Janet Jackson. Janet Jackson. Janet Jackson. Katherine. Janet Jackson. Ah! "X-RAYTOR TELLS ALL-- 'I WAS RAISED BY SEMI-INTELLIGENT APES!'"

Another award winning story by the Inside View, for certain. She handed it to the Evil Bag Boy. "This too."

The Evil Bag Boy rolled his eyes and rang up the Inside View. "That'll be a hundred seventy five. You people eat like pigs."

"And, hey, look, I've got a few thousand coupons!" Pinzz said, dumping them on the counter.

The Evil Bag Boy muttered something else as he checked these, and then said, "That'll be… seventy two dollars."

"Heeeere you go!" Pinzz said, handing over the money.

The Evil Bag Boy put her bags into the cart. Just as Pinzz was about to leave, he looked her directly in the eye.

"You can laugh now and act all brave and tough," he said. "But you know just as well as I that you guys are screwed over royally. Try to make nothing of this now, sure, but let me tell you-- this whole thing is going to hurt you in a big way."

Pinzz raised an eyebrow. "Buying groceries?"

"We'll see who has the last laugh," the Evil Bag Boy said, and then turned back to the register.

Pinzz stood, not sure of what to say for a moment. And then, she said one word:

"HA!!"

She turned and walked towards the doors.

***

Bo Powers
PowersCo, Inc. Annual Report 2003
Final Word Report

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“Greetings, fellow PowersCo shareholders. It is my great pleasure to speak to you today about the tremendous strides our organization has taken over the past year, and to share with your our glorious vision for the year to come.

“Already a leader in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and related industries, Powersco maintains a unique blend of businesses, financial flexibility and global growth opportunities. This confluence allows us to build better relations between our various divisions, and provide better, broader service to our customers. Because of our wide reach, we can provide more products and business opportunities; and the possibilities for new growth are dramatic.

“The variety of our holdings and products makes PowersCo a truly unique corporation. We have invested in the best, and most profitable, brands, to help bring our customers the best. I personally find our business potential to be thrilling. Imagine- beyond our chemical core, we can touch the everyday lives of people all over the globe in more ways than we can even imagine. PowersCo connects, informs and nourishes people all over the world and helps to enrich their lives.

“Another attribute to our success is the innovation with which we run this company. By investing ourselves in creative ways, we have increased our profits tremendously. For example, the recent additions to our growing entertainment industry- the Knights baseball team and the ‘39ers basketball team- both had great seasons, obliterating their opposition with the kind of relentlessness that characterizes PowersCo. Also, WPOW Power 66 Radio and our recent acquisition of Channel Five News have exceeded expectations in their ratings.

“And, of course, we have made more traditional advances, true to the heart of our corporation. First and foremost is our new ‘wonder drug,’ Spevdo, which can dramatically increase the healing time of the human body during an operation, as well as hundreds of other chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological advances. Also notable is that we patented PaynGon, a new medical adhesive that may soon replace Band-Aids.

“Another example of our innovative investments are the numerous charities that PowersCo has donated to this year. In my opinion, what better use is there for wealth than helping those most in need? This year we donated to the construction of a memorial on the site of the Norton Amphitheater, which will begin construction in April, a well as donations to New York’s Freedom Tower fund, and the Jackson Prison Reconstruction Fund. PowersCo is also a frequent donator to the science department at the University, which has become one of the most comprehensive on-campus labs in the nation.

“PowersCo also opened several new facilities this year, including plants in France, Brazil, and Japan, and various other plants across the United States. These facilities, especially PowersCo Plant No. 6, located immediately outside of the City, in Lowell County, are paradigms for the rest of the corporation, and the industry in general.

“In the next hour, I will detail PowersCo’s financial successes in the 2003 fiscal year, and explain in more depth the variety and innovation of our business procedures, and why the future of PowersCo is undeniably bright. Just remember our new slogan: ‘PowersCo: We Bring You Tomorrow… Today.’”

***

“And now we’re back to the Ronny Rosewater Show!”

Midnight Chatter shrugged, and put the remote down. The camera panned over the crowd, applauding wildly, before cutting to Ronny Rosewater, a blond man in his early forties, wearing a dark suit, standing in front of his desk, with its double R emblem.

“Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, we have a great show going on today. For those of you tuning in late, we are discussing what will possibly be the biggest controversy of the century: the Justice League!”

“Ha!” Midnight Chatter said. “We’re only in the fourth year of this century! Booyah!” And then, after some consideration. “I wonder what this is about…”

***

“Jeez, no respect,” X-Raytor muttered. He was sitting on a fire escape, in an alley off of State Street. His legs were through the railing, and swinging lightly.

“I mean, come on,” he said. “I go in. I kick butt. I do good. Can’t I get, like, a little respect? I mean, it’s almost enough to make me want to- to- to take a slightly prolonged break from crime fighting!”

He frowned. Yeah, he could take a break, and then, hey, maybe a few more people could get killed! Pinzz had given him serious crap for going along with the Seppanen lawsuit. She’d pointed out- with un-Pinzz-like logic- that even the police were allowed to take breaks, and it wasn’t like the Justice League was employed by the City or anything…

But that was complete and total irrelevant bulls***. The police were allowed vacations, but the entire f***ing department didn’t all take off at once. There were always still people there, keeping an eye on things. Which is, X-Raytor had said, exactly what the Justice League should have done. Especially since the City’s police department was, exactly, useless.

Besides, even if none of them had been there, even if they hadn’t been able to stop the shooting, they most likely could have caught the schmuck. As it was, said schmuck was still on the loose, and the police had nothing resembling a lead (as far as X-Raytor knew, at least).

X-Raytor had talked to Seppanen’s lawyer a few days ago. Well, actually, Rosma had, with X-Raytor sort of hanging in the background. They’d agreed to meet in the next week and work out their deal. X-Raytor hadn’t met Fred Seppanen himself, something that made him both relieved and all the more anxious.

“Oh, man- Brian!! Dude!! Have you seen it yet?”

“Oh, dude, dude, I just got my copy! How-f***! How cool is this?!”

“Flint is going to flip s***.”

“I know!!”

“Flip. S***.”

X-Raytor raised an eyebrow, and looked towards the mouth of the alley. He couldn’t see the people who were talking, but they were obviously right outside.

“How- I’m serious- how cool is this? I mean, after all of this- all of this stupid bulls*** and people acting like- like I don’t know what. After all this, we got this!”

“It’s amazing. I haven’t even started reading it yet.”

X-Raytor rolled his eyebrows. Not another bunch of Da Vinci Code groupies…

“Man, I thought The Da Vinci Code was cool, but this- this is going to be so big. This entire city…”

“This entire city is going to flip s***!!”

X-Raytor frowned. Something was weird here. What were they talking about, anyway, a book or…?

“I had to fight a mob at Borders to get this copy.”

“You should have tried one of the smaller bookstores, there’s not too many people there now. Oh, man, can you believe this?!”

X-Raytor stood up on the fire escape. Maybe these guys were just stupid book nerds, creaming their jeans over the new Harry Potter or whatever. But maybe there was something else going on here, something really big…

Won’t hurt to check it out, X-Raytor thought, as he climbed up the fire escape’s ladder.

***

Pinzz was halfway to the door, pushing her cart, when she saw the crowd.

There were at least a dozen people, all crowding around something near the door. She could hear them all, talking excitedly, but she couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying.

She left her cart behind, and walked over to see what was up..

***

“Now, I, personally, have always suspected the Justice League. That’s no secret to my viewers,” Ronny Rosewater said. “And this month- these past two months, right here at the beginning of 2004, have been providing more and more evidence that I was right. Oreo Avenger turns bank robber and fights with the police. Studmuffin, who was mysteriously gone for however long, up and runs off with the Tri-Leaders- the Tri-Leaders!!- and hasn’t been heard from since. Violet Princess returns, saying that her ‘death’ at the Oscars was just an ‘illusion.’” He raised an eyebrow at the camera. “And, of course, who can forget how the Justice League- the Just-us League- went on a cruise, shirking their responsibility, which resulted in the death of an innocent man!

“But it was all just speculation before. Nothing could be proven.” He paused, and then grinned. “Until today.”

Midnight Chatter’s eyebrows shot up, and he leaned forwards…

***

Pinzz finally fought her way through the crowd, after stepping on a few peoples’ toes, and then, there it was- the newspaper rack. The new issue of The Sentinel was there. The crowd had fallen silent and backed away from her and the rack.

It was very rare that Pinzz was ever shocked. Truly shocked, at least. It wasn’t really in her persona to get shocked- she just wasn’t that emotive. But now, Pinzz’s eyes popped open and her jaw dropped in, well, shock.

The headline read: Corruption Plagues the Justice League.

She snatched a copy off of the stand. There was a picture of the Hall of Justice beneath the headline, and, in an inset photo… Typho.

The caption read: “Staff-writer George White (inset) went undercover in the Hall of Justice (above) as an aspiring superhero named ‘Typho.’”

She checked the byline. George White.

The paper crumpled in Pinzz’s hand, and her blue suit suddenly took on a darker shade.

“That… little… S***!!!!!”

***

X-Raytor reached the Little Professor Book Shoppe in twenty minutes, but there was already a literal mob out front. His heart was beating faster now, with the inevitable understanding that something big was about to happen. He dropped from the roof onto a ledge, and from there onto the sidewalk. He walked up behind the crowd and stood on his tiptoes, trying to see over their heads. When that didn’t work, he said, “Uh, excuse me?”

The crowd fell silent. Twenty faces turned and looked at him, almost sheepishly. And then they parted, leaving a clear path to the front window of the bookstore. Feeling uncomfortable, X-Raytor walked up, and looked in the window.

There was a glossy hard cover book on display, its cover gray. There was a white sketch of a brain, from the front, with a silver domino mask over it. There were five copies in the window, and at least fifty stacked inside. And that was just what X-Raytor could see.

The book was entitled Man and the Super Man: A Discourse on Super Hero Psychology. The author’s name was John Lansky, Ph.D.

X-Raytor’s entire body froze. His breath came out low and shallow, and he had an unfamiliar, but very strong, urge to start crying, right there on the street.

“Oh no…”

***

“They kept it under wraps for so long. They didn’t think we’d ever find out,” Ronny Rosewater said. He held up a copy of The Sentinel and Man and the Super Man and grinned at the camera.

“Well, now we know.”