JUSTICE LEAGUE

45

Illusions and Grandparents
 

Hamlet crept along the jungle floor, fully aware of the dangers lurking in the river nearby. Deadly crocodiles. Poisonous snakes. Stray Australian crocodile hunters.

The Congo, after all, is an untamed land of forest and water. Aside from the occasional confused safari guide or archeologist, the only human inhabitants were the Musseronges and the Azandes, two fiercely territorial tribes of cannibals. Hamlet had friends among the Azandes, but he had no love for the Musseronges. Then again, anyone who tried to flay him alive after blindly stepping into a trap wasn’t going to be high on his list of friends. Even if it was Hamlet’s own fault he stepped into the trap.

He bounded over to the clearing up ahead, making it halfway across before the tipped dart found its mark in his neck. Hamlet fell in a heap in the middle of the clearing, blacking out just as he recognized the dark figure approaching him.

******

Drip. Drip. Drip. The sound repeated itself over and over in the thick black as two figures made their usual exchange.

“Got the money?”

“Got the goods?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I got the dough. How much?”

“How much you got?”

“Enough.”

“One hundred twelve dollars. And eight-five cents.”

“That much for ten pizzas? We didn’t order golden pepperonis.”

“Do you want them or not?”

Saph hurried as she walked out of hearing distance of the two figures. This sewer housing ends now. She stopped to adjust her shoes before pushing open the sewer hatch that opened into a secluded portion of one of the city parks. Giant turtles. A giant rat. Where was that damned Crocodile Hunter when you needed him?

She brushed the tear from her eye before it could drip onto her cheek. Crying over Horatio wouldn’t bring him back. Not when that giant rat had eaten him before she could do anything. Pulling a Little Red Riding Hood woodsman act and chopping the rat open hadn’t even helped.

Horatio had been stupid to suggest the sewer. Learned the hard way about urban legends, Saph thought to herself.

The single tear would be all Horatio would get; there wasn’t any reason to waste time crying when she had so much to do. Especially with her sidekick gone. Saph wasn’t Scarlett after all, and she knew what Scarlett had been up to since Hamlet left to begin tailing Saph: nothing.

“Unless you count that PR disaster of a cruise,” she muttered as she made her way into the sleek office building. Striding over to the elevator, she pushed the button and it opened on cue. Saph stepped inside and let it carry her up to the top floor. The penthouse.

For once, she didn’t have to worry about Scarlett’s nosy cat. Aside from the obvious reasons, Saph was fairly certain she knew why Hamlet had tailed her for so long; unfortunately for him, the sleuthing would be fruitless. Saph was too seasoned for even the cleverest of cats to beat her at her favorite game.

But it wasn't just Hamlet; most people underestimated her. Ever since her mom had died, they treated Saph like she was made of glass, the same way they’d treated her mother at the end. Skylar, the woman who’d embodied the term “Steel Magnolia.” But it was others’ oversight; not hers.

Saph had never seen the need to tell people how good she was at what she did. It was much, much better for them to find out the hard way.

"Never give away too much, Saph,” her mom always told her. "Only fools show their hand before the bets are made.”

The elevator door opened into the penthouse. Across the room, a gas log fireplace burned silently, and Saph unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse. A tall blond strode in, a white towel wrapped around his bottom half. “Saph?”

“Phabio. You’re not dressed?”

“You’re early.”

Saph walked up to him, and traced a finger down his left arm to his hand. “I thought I’d make up for being gone so long.”

“Oh?”

Saph smiled, so near now that Phabio’s long blond hair was dripping onto the front of Saph’s shirt. She reached for the knot in the towel. “Let me help you dry off.”

***

Jo stared at the walls of his tiny closet room. He’d never read Harry Potter, but he’d seen the movies, and was able to make a comparison between rooms. As nice as it was to have a room to himself in this madhouse, curling up in the fetal position wasn’t exactly an ideal sleeping position. Especially not when he couldn’t even hold Barbara Ann in his arms as he slept. Jo had to settle for wrapping his feet on either side of her. That was okay for naps, but he had trouble sleeping for longer spans of time.

He wondered again why he’d let Hamlet talk him into the Justice League when he should be out there trying to find Lylah. Jo closed his eyes, savoring every detail he remembered. The blue eyes, a rare blue he’d only ever seen in Lylah and Scarlett’s eyes.

When he’d met Scarlett for the first time, he’d even toyed with the idea she was Lylah in some kind of disguise, but Hamlet had assured Jo that Scarlett had never had red hair. Jo rubbed his thumb and index finger together, imagining he was rubbing a lock of that soft red hair the way he had after their last night.

If only he’d known then, he would have paid more attention to every detail. The way she’d smiled, spoken so softly. The deft way she’d unknotted the towel. Jo reached for the drawstring on his swim trunks, knotting and unknotting them over and over with his eyes closed, staring into her face.

******

Scarlett stalked into the living room. The most of the Justice Leaguers were sitting there, watching a rerun of Friends.

“What are ya’ll doing?”

“What does it look like?” Eric replied.

“We’re superheroes!”

“So?”

“So why aren’t we out policing the streets?”

“Because everyone likes Friends?”

“Have you all already forgot about the guy who died because we were sitting on our butts instead of doing our job?”

“It’s daylight. What happens in broad daylight?” asked Crystal

“Besides. No one seems to want us fighting crime anymore,” Twisk joined in.

“Yeah. Why do we even bother?”

Scarlett’s face went the same shade as her dress. “Why does the Justice League bother fighting crime? I have to answer that? What’s wrong with you people?”

“Chill out, Scarlett, this is the funniest part!”

“Chill out? You want me to what?”

“Shhh.”

Scarlett glared at the TV. Glared at the couch potato Justice Leaguers. Glared at the TV some more. And then an idea flickered; Scarlett started to sing. Not the best song, but a fairly appropriate one:

“ And they say that
A hero would save us
I'm not gonna stand here and wait
I'll hold onto the wings of the eagles
And watch as they all fly awa-”

“Scarlett, are you crazy?!” Midnight yelled as sparks erupted from the TV, which was suddenly engulfed in flames.

Crystal quickly iced it before the fire spread. “That’s the only TV we have!”

“Maybe we can get off our butts and do something for once, then,” Scarlett said as she left the living room.

"So I guess I'm not the only one who hates Friends," said Oreo Avenger.

***

An explosion. Violet peaked her head from the kitchen, where she had been pouring herself a cup of coffee. Though she was dressed well enough, dark, purple rings sagged beneath her eyelids.

“What happened?” Violet asked Scarlett as she huffed by. But before the young woman could answer, Violet saw the now flaming television. “Oh.”

“I’m tired of sitting here doing nothing,” she said. Violet shrugged. “Oh! Not you, too!” Scarlett whirled around. Violet’s eyes flashed.

“No! Not me, too!” she shouted. “I’m getting my coat!”

***

"Am I dead?"

"Well, you're talking to me and I'm not dead and...OH MY GOD! I SEE DEAD PEOPLE! ALLIE? ALLIE? WHERE ARE YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUU?!"

"Okay. Looks like I'm not dead." Raven sighed, and sat up. "What happened?"

"Well, you bled to death. Sort of. Maybe not. And then Yago spontaneously started beating up Lansky. And then Liesa took Lansky's keys, while Yago was beating him up, and let us out. Look behind you." Holden adjusted the rearview mirror to give himself a better view.

She looked. The street in front of Zaphod Beeblebrox Memorial Asylum seemed to have become one big block party.

"Hmm."

"Yes."

"Hmm."

"Unfortunately, we didn't get to plant the tape recorder in Lansky's office. I have it right here."

Raven took it and briefly fiddled with the buttons.

"We have something better." she said

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Can you take me back to the Hall of Justice?"

"Don't they usually bring you to the hospital when you almost bleed to death?"

"Yeah, but I'm special." She frowned, squinting at a figure sprinting down another street. "Wait. Wait. Just drop me off here." She leaped out of the car.

"Listen, I'll call you, okay? Later on. And we can work out the Lansky thing."

"Okay."

She waved to Holden and ran to catch up with the costumed girl.

***

Meanwhile, out in the middle of nowhere...and a few cacti...

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this, Fred Junior!" Ari griped, sliding off the llama. "We’re totally, completely lost! And it's all your fault! And to think I trusted you when you said you had an innate sense of direction!"

Fred Junior spat.

"EXCUSE ME?" Ari said, eyes widening. "I am so totally NOT a blarg-farkin!"

He spat again.

"Oh, oh? Wanna start something, is that it? Huh? Huh?!" Ari faced the llama.

"Maaaaaahhh!" Fred Jr. said reproachfully.

"You're right, we shouldn't fight." Ari sighed. "Well, can we at least find our way back?"

"MMAAAAAAaaahhhhh!" Fred flicked his llama tail.

"Follow the conveniently placed cacti? Good idea, Fred!" Ari and the llama set off.

--------

Some time later, they finally made it back to the Hall. Where there was lots of hubbub and hoopalah. And Ari could smell smoke.

"Oh great. What menace is threatening our livelihood NOW?" Ari asked Fred Junior. He bleated uncertainly.

***

“Xiao, come with me,” Violet demanded. She grabbed Ari by the arm with one hand and with the other took a denim jacket off the coat rack. True she wasn’t in prime fighting clothes, but jeans and a blouse would have to do.

“What? Okay?” the younger hero followed Violet from the Hall and onto the sidewalk. She couldn’t have known, but Violet was sleep deprived and at the edge of yet another breakdown. She slept only when she had to, and those precious moments were plagued by the nightmares only Scarlett knew about. Luckily, Violet found that coffee was an excellent supplement for sleep, and it chased away the visions in the daytime as well.

She would have to remember to write a thank you note to Maxwell House.

“Where are we going?” Ari asked. Violet has slowed down now, as she approached the street. Fred Jr. fell into a comfortable trot.

“To fight crime,” she said, determinedly.

“I’m not sure the people in this city really want us to.”

“Then we’ll go to Chinatown,” Violet said. “They mostly can’t speak English, so they can’t be mad at us.”

“Isn’t that presumptive?” Violet glared at Ari before turning to walk at a faster pace. “Wait up!”

“Walk faster!” she barked.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” The heroes turned the corner and the streets grew darker and dirtier. Violet slowed down again, much to the relief of Fred, Jr., who was nearly out of his llama breath. Ari patted him on the head.

***

"Well, there, uh, doesn't seem to be any crime here," Ari tried to point out.

"There's bound to be some somewhere," Violet said, vehemently.

"Er...Okay then." Ari sighed quietly, but continued on. They passed by several men trying to sell watches, sunglasses, and several other items.

"No crime here, either," Ari said, looking into a tight shop that was crammed full of merchandise. Violet scowled. "But I'm sure we'll find some somewhere soon!" Ari added quickly. "Probably."

They had just reached the end of a block that led into "official" Chinatown, Violet looking like she was about to order someone to commit a crime, when people began screaming and running.

"What's wrong?" Violet asked quickly. Llama had a "deer in the headlights" look and was staring straight ahead. The two girls look in his direction. Ari's mouth fell open.

"Finally!" Violet said.

"I'm....I'm...I...." Ari faltered.

"It's just a big lizard," Violet coaxed.

"IT'S GODZILLA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" A random Chinese man screamed, pointing at the apparition. "AAAAAAIIIIEEEEE!!!!"

Squealing tires of vehicles added to the mounting confusion. People were trying to get away very quickly, no matter how many telephone poles and street signs they backed into. Pedestrians- salespeople, tourists, and random others- were forced to jump out of several cars' paths. The monster was stomping-well, lurhcing- towards a largeChinese restuarant, hands outstretched, emitting a horrible screeching sound.

"Maybe we should look for crime that way!" Ari begged. "In the dark and probably highly unsafe dead end alleyway squeezed in between the ancient antique store and the pet shop."

"Later!" A look of determination crossed Violet's face.

"Oh dear," Ari said, and Fred Junior bleated in agreement. This is what I get for wanting to be a part of the action, Ari thought.

Just then the monster let loose a gigantic fireball. Ari fell over, people screamed, cars started burning! And quaint Chinese buildings!

"AAAAAAIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" Another random person screamed, loudly, falling into the path of oncoming traffic.
)
***

The monster struck a building with his giant clawed hand and roared. Violet’s hands rushed to her ears. “This might be a little harder than I thought…” Violet whispered. Then she saw the man standing in the middle of the street and took off. She crashed into him, sending him tumbling into a street vendor. Violet rolled under a parked car.

There was a screeching of tires and a loud crash. The car that had been heading for the man had just hit a streetlamp, and the driver was now panicking as she attempted to fight off her safety belt. Recovering from her fall, Ari pushed herself to her feet and began helping the woman in the car. It was then that Violet noticed something very strange about the flaming buildings-they weren’t really flaming.

Violet looked again, and the monster roared. He slashed at a group of running passersby and Violet saw his hand pass right through the side of the building. The civilians were too panicked to noticed and ran inside the building.

“No,” she whispered in disbelief. “Disappear.” But the monster would not fade away.

Another scream, the sound of breaking glass. Violet turned and saw a man had broken into a weapons shop and was proceeding to aim at the monster.

“Those bullets will pass right through it…”

Violet ran. Her brown hair flung out in all directions as she pushed past crashed cars and running people. She had to stop that man before he accidentally shot someone.

“Wait!” she cried, but he paid no attention. Violet leapt, pushing the man down. As she did so, she felt a sharp pain in her shoulder.

“Violet!” someone cried. The monster and fires faded away, and Violet saw Ari at her side. The man with the gun looked on, confused. And then everything went black.

***

The first thing Oreo Avenger noticed upon entering her room was the smell. Clean, with just a hint of lemon juice. The second was the spotless floor. The third, as Oreo looked around for a clean costume, was her sister dusting the family portrait.

“I’m glad you’re finally awake,” Claire said without looking up. “Hurry and get dressed. We don’t want to be late.”

“What are you doing here?” Oreo demanded, hovering. “Where’s my costume?” She always kept her clean costumes on top of the dresser, neatly folded in a laundry basket. The only things in her dresser were a hairbrush and some photographs.

“Grandfather and his entourage took over the house, so…” Claire shrugged. “Oh, and I threw your costume away.”

“WHAT?”

“It was all torn and dirty and they had to cut it off you after Rosma brought you to the infirmary. How’d you get so much mud on that thing? Besides, you don’t need it.”

“Yes, I do!” Oreo checked under her bed. Not even dust bunnies greeted her. “My entire existence is grounded on the fact that I go out and fight crime, and right now I have to…what happened to the stuff under my bed?”

Claire waved her hand at the bookshelf. “Alphabetized and everything,” she said proudly.

“I’ll never be able to find anything!”

“I don’t know how you found anything before.”

“I had a system,” Oreo muttered. “Never mind. Just tell me where you hid my clean costumes so I can get out there before someone else dies.”

“They’re not on top of the wardrobe. Sit down. Sit down!”

Oreo perched on the edge of the bed. Claire stood in front of her, hands on her hips.

“This crime fighting,” Claire said. “Are there any other superheroes out there?”

“Yes, but-“

“So trust them to do their job. You have more important things to do today.”

“What’s more important than protecting the city?”

“Dad’s funeral.”

“Oh.” Oreo stood up quickly. “I’m sorry, but I still have to go.”

“What if I told you everything’s going to be all right?”

Oreo looked down into the other girl’s face. “You don’t know that.”

“I will in a second.” Claire went very still, feather duster falling from limp hands, staring ahead at nothing. Oreo stayed silent. It could be dangerous to interrupt her sister.

“There’s a lot of possible futures wrapped around this group,” Claire said, her voice seeming to come from far away. “Some threads of Fate and Destiny mixed in there too. Very hard to see through.” Claire’s head turned, trying to see through the ocean of possible futures. “Okay, today…today…oh dear.” Claire scrubbed her hands on her pants. “Stay away from a guy named Harvey. He doesn’t mean you well.”

“The state of the city?” Oreo prompted.

“Oh yeah. Everything’ll turn out okay. I hope,” Claire added under her breath.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!”

“Okay,” Oreo said. “Good.”

Claire rummaged around in the wardrobe. “I brought you some clothes from home. Get dressed.”

“I still can’t go,” Oreo said. “I have to do a background check on all the new members.”

Claire shoved the clothes into Oreo’s hands. “Get dressed.”

“But I have to organize a press conference!”

“Get dressed!”

“But I hate black!”

“Too bad!”

“At least it’s not a skirt,” Oreo grumbled, getting dressed. She shook her hair out after pulling on the shirt, catching Claire’s horrified look.

“What?’

“Your hair!” Claire said. “What did you do to your hair?”

Oreo shrugged. “It was long so I cut it. Let’s go. You said you didn’t want to be late.”

“We can be a little late for this. Sit down. It looks like you hacked it off with a knife!” Claire caught a glimpse of Oreo’s face. “You did! Have I taught you nothing about proper hair care? Sit down. I’m not letting you go to the funeral with your hair looking like that.”

“What if I don’t let you fix it?” Oreo asked, sitting down. “Does that mean I don’t have to go?”

Claire wrapped a sheet around Oreo’s shoulders, ignoring Oreo’s question. “I’m going to need to even this out a little first, so don’t move around or anything or I might cut your ear off. Look down.”

Oreo looked down at the sheet as the scissors clacked behind her head. It was a shimmery sort of purple that tossed light around the room in strange ways. It looked oddly familiar.

“Hey, this is my cape!” Oreo yelled, head shooting up.

“Argelfraster!” Claire swore.

“What did you do?” Oreo shrieked, twisting to see her reflection.

“Nothing!” Claire said. “Nothing at all! Just stay still and don’t move anymore. You’re a quick healer, right? Just kidding! Don’t move.”

Oreo sighed. “You know,” she started. “I never thought I’d outlive Dad. In the back of my mind I guess I’d always assumed some super-villain or another would knock me off.”

“I’d have warned you,” Claire said. “Dad…I didn’t even look to see what was in store for Dad. Do you know what I was doing the morning he died? Do you?” Claire angrily chopped Oreo’s hair. “I was seeing how I did on the last test. If I’d just had the brains to look, I could’ve told him not to go shopping, or, or, or if I wasn’t so stupid about it all maybe-“

“No,” Oreo said. “Stop it. Our crazy cousin Jane’s the one responsible for Dad’s death, not us.”

“But I-“

“No! I’m refusing to let you take responsibility for this. We both contributed, I don’t deny you that, but in the end it was Jane who dressed up like me and threw those explosives. Not you, not me, Jane.”

“Okay.”

“Now finish my haircut. We have a funeral to go to.”

***

Flower arrangements dotted the large peach room of the funeral home, providing a colorful contrast to the somber crowd milling around. It was closed casket, of course. The mortician didn’t have enough of Dr. Evans’s face to show the public. Claire and Oreo stood in a corner, accepting sympathy from those passing. Oreo tugged on the ends of her hair.

“Will you stop doing that?” Claire hissed between I’m-sorry-for-your-losses. “Your hair’s fine.”

“I look like a boy.”

Claire looked over the hair. “It’ll grow out,” she said quickly. “Your hair grows almost as fast as Mom’s did.”

The girls went silent, remembering their mother who died over seven years ago. She was a superhero whose work followed her home one day.

“Anyway,” Claire said. “You needed a change.”

A pair of possible relatives stopped in front of the girls to offer their condolences.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” one said, pinning Oreo in a hug. “We didn’t know your dad very well, but he was always kind to us.”

The other hung back, his ears turning red. “Yes. Let us know if we can do anything.”

Oreo watched as, their duty done, they walked away. “Who were those people?” Oreo whispered.

“Max and Isabelle,” Claire said. “Our cousins,” she prompted at Oreo’s blank look. “Adopted? From New Mexico? Their dad’s one of our corporate lawyers? You used to tell me they were aliens?”

“They are!” Oreo said, suddenly recognizing them. “Really though, how can Isabelle’s hair be that shiny without alien intervention?”

“Do you have to wear those sunglasses?”

“Yes,” Oreo whispered back. “I got a mask tan from that stupid island. I don’t want anyone even thinking Anne Evans and Oreo Avenger together.”

Willikins, Grandfather’s butler, suddenly appeared beside the girls, startling them. He pulled Claire away by the elbow and whispered in her ear. She frowned at him and asked a question. Oreo futilely strained to hear his response.

“Anne,” Claire said, rejoining Oreo in the corner. “Grandfather wants to talk to me. Are you going to be okay by yourself?”

“I’ll be fine,” Oreo said. “The real question is will you be okay?”

“He can’t do anything.” Claire followed Willikins. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a minute.”

Oreo watched her sister walk away and let her mind blank. She was getting good at that. An indeterminate time later, Oreo was jolted out of her reverie by a large shadow enfolding her hand in his enormous ones.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Bo Powers said, patting her hand. “Your father always struck me as a fair and decent man. This may sound strange, but have we met before?”

Oreo kept her head down and adjusted her sunglasses. The last thing she needed was Bo Powers to discover her secret identity. “I don’t think so,” she said in a low quivery voice.

“Are you sure? You look very familiar.”

“I guess I just have one of those faces,” Oreo said in a low voice. “What’s your name again?”

“Forgive my rudeness,” he said. “I’m Bo Powers. Your father and I worked together on a few projects some years ago.”

“Ah.” Her brain buzzed, tossing up a million ways to get rid of him, none of appropriate for this situation. A hand brushed her shoulder, and she down looked into the spectacled face of Willikins. She’d never been more glad to see her grandfather’s lackey.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Powers, but I must attend my grandfather.”

“Of course,” Bo Powers said, releasing her hand. She subtly wiped it on her pants. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Oreo brushed past Bo Powers. She didn’t want her back to the man, but Willikins led her past.

Oreo accepted passing expressions of sympathy with a solemn nod. “Do you know what Grandfather wanted?” she asked.

“Sir only requested I fetch you as soon as possible.”

Oreo quietly followed Willikins to the back. “Do you know that man I was talking to?”

Willikins nodded. “Of course. Mr. Powers golfs with your grandfather weekly.”

Oreo stumbled on the empty floor. “What?”

“They’ve long been business associates. In fact, I believe Mr. Powers is one of the contributors to your grandfather’s campaign.” Willikins opened a door. “Right through here.”

Of course Grandfather commandeered the office. He sat behind the desk, watching Oreo over steepled fingers. Senator Evans’s only indication of age was his pure white hair and a few lines on his face.

“Please, sit,” he said. “And take off those ridiculous sunglasses. You’re indoors.”

“I prefer to stand.”

“Very well.” He stood and paced behind the desk, hands folded behind his back. “I trust that after all this you’ve finally decided to grow out of this silly superhero phase.”

Oreo abruptly sat. “What?”

“I don’t have time to beat around the bush, Anne,” Senator Evans said, reseating himself behind the desk. “You have responsibilities now. To your sister, to your family, even to yourself. Gallivanting around the city in a purple cape arresting petty thugs…it’s beneath you.”

Oreo cleared her throat. “I, um, don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you do. Do you think a little mask is enough of a disguise to fool me? The city hates you. You’ve just inherited your father’s fortune. You can comfortably live on that for the rest of your life. Now seems like a good time to retire from the superhero business.”

Oreo stood and kept rising until she floated a few feet above the ground. “I can’t just quit being a superhero; it’s who I am! Do you think I like breaking my bones and watching my friends die, just so a bunch of people can call us elitist and throw rocks at us? This is something I have to do. Power and responsibility, Grandfather, it goes hand in hand.”

Senator Evans sighed. “That’s it, then?”

Oreo floated to the ground. “That’s it.”

He dug in his pockets and pulled out a slip of paper. “I thought that’s what you’d say. Just remember, you’ll always have a place in the family business. Especially since you’re now a major stockholder.” He handed her the paper.

“What’s this?”

“If you’re going to persist in this superhero foolishness, you and your friends need to clean up your image. That’s the name of the best PR guy in the business. I’ve already called him; he’ll be by tomorrow. And no, he’s not evil.”

***

Raven sighed. She hadn't been able to catch up Scarlett. She walked across the street to the Hall.

Entering, she blinked.

"What the hell happened to the TV?"

"We were all watching Friends, and they were all in the cafe, and Ross was about to say something, and then Joey interrupted him, and then an extra came through the door of the TV, and-"

"Forget it, Midnight." she sighed. "Do you know where X-Raytor is?"

"Upstairs, I think."

"Thanks."

She leaped up the stairs, and knocked on his door. "Are you dressed?"

"Yeeaaaaah...are you?"

"Yes."

"Well, damn." He opened the door. "What do you wa-hey, what happened to your neck?"

She shook her head. "You'll know soon enough. Listen, I have a tape. Of Lansky."

"So?"

"So listen to it. Guard it with your life, and get back to me as soon as you've heard it all."

***

Hours later, as the remaining Justice Leaguers continued to stare at the charred, frozen TV wondering what to do with themselves, the doorbell rang. At first no one responded, but when whoever was ringing it started to use it to play an annoyingly rousing rendition of the Carol of the Bells, Pinzz finally spoke up.

“Someone get that before I smash something.”

“Not much left to smash,” Twisk muttered as she got up from the couch to answer the door. She blinked at the frail old woman with blond dreadlocks standing on the front steps with an equally ancient brown and green suitcase resting to her right. Twisk would have assumed she was just another bag lady if she hadn’t noticed the shiny red Super Stock Dodge parked half on the curb, half on the lawn. The front fender was two inches from the old green penguin lawn ornament.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for my grandson.”

“Lady, I think you’ve got the wrong place. This is the Hall of Justice.”

“Don’t talk down to me girl. I know where I am, and I know my grandson is hiding out here. I saw him on the news this morning and came to get him. His name is J-”

“Fine, fine, I’ll get him for you.” Twisk shut the door. “Where’s that new kid, Julian?”

“Who, me?” asked the guy X-Raytor had brought in earlier.

“Yeah. Your grandmother’s here to pick you up.”

“What? Are you crazy?”

Twisk opened the door. “He’s in the living room if you want him.”

“Thanks oh so much, dear,” the woman said, rolling her eyes as she strode in. Upon reaching the living room and scanning the faces, she turned to look back at Twisk who’d walked in behind her. “My grandson isn’t here.”

“He’s right there. You don’t recognize Julian?”

“I don’t know anyone named Julian unless you mean the guy in Passions. I’m looking for Joseph.”

“We don’t have a Joseph,” Right Wing Man told her.

“No, but we’ve got a Jo. And Jo is an abbreviation of Joseph. Or Josephine. I had a friend named Josephine, but she went by Josie. She hated Josie and the Pussycats, though, but I think that might be because she was allergic to cats. Did you know some allergies are actually caused by--” Midnight Chatter began to point out.

Crystal cut him off. “Are you looking for Jo Surf?”

“Maybe. He’s got blond hair, usually carries a surfboard? Kind of a hippie kid, but in a not-so-pot smoking way?”

“That’s him,” Netic said. “Not sure where he is.”

“He was on the Justice John earlier,” Eric said. “Bad takeout food.”

“I’m going to look around and find him,” the grandmother said. “If you don’t mind.” She gave them a look, daring them to try and stop her.

The Justice Leaguers mumbled their general assent, and finally Eric spoke up again. “Fine by us.”

Jo’s grandmother looked Eric up and down. “I didn’t think it was that cold in here,” she noted, and walked out of sight as the others burst into giggles.

Eric frowned and muttered something obscene under his breath.

Suddenly, Drew stopped giggling. “Guys, am I the only one who just now realized we didn’t even get her name?” asked Drew.

“Big deal, she’s just Jo’s grandmother.”

“That’s what she says.”

“So…?”

“We’re idiots, guys. She could be anyone.” Drew started to reach for lock-down button under the coffee table. Yet another new feature of the newly-improved Hall of Justice.

“Relax. A little old woman like that couldn’t be a supervillain.”

“Yeah, that makes about as much sense as some random grocery store manag…okay, I see your point, Drew.”

Netic ran to the door and pointed at a smudge. “Hah! We can just run her fingerprints through our database of known supervillains, and then we’ll know whether she is grandmother or gangster!”

The others shifted their gaze from the TV. Drew spoke up. “…Netic, have you been taking calls from Adam West again?”

“Of course not!”

“Burt Ward, then.”

Nectic made no reply.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. We don’t have a database of known super villains,” Pinzz said.

“What? We don’t?”

“Don’t act surprised. You think I’m gonna write down the particulars of all the creeps we deal with?”

“Some of ‘em don’t even have fingerprints. Like that green penguin thing with the crush on X-y,” said Crystal.

Drew shook her head. “We should at least have a list of names. And pictures.”

Pinzz rolled her eyes. “And who’s going to waste their time doing it? You?”

“Maybe.” Drew stood up. “In fact, I’ll be in the new computer lab looking up information if anyone needs me.”

“I’ll help,” said Netic.

Right Wing Man got up from his armchair as well. “I would be happy to assist you ladies in your academic attempt.” The three superheroes left the others in the living room.

“It’s someone’s turn to get dinner going,” Eric noted.

“Iso. It’s Iso’s turn.”

“Well, where the hell is he? Someone go check the dark corners for brooding figures.”

“There was a Bob Marley convention downtown this afternoon. Maybe he’s on his way back.”

“I don’t care where he is, I just want some food.”

***

“Joseph? Jooooooseph? Don’t think you can hide your sorry ass in this place forever,” Jo’s grandmother said loudly as she wandered down a hallway. “Get yourself out here before I tan your hide so hard it burns the hair off your tongue.” Sofie Von Strasse Surface had lived a lot of places, and yet there was no place she’d ever lived with more wildly vivid phrases than Dixie. Three years there a decade ago had been more than sufficient to double her English vocabulary, even if she still didn’t know what half of it meant.

But every place was home for its own reasons. Like now, Pasadena was fine for grabbing movie star ass and general ogling, especially after her husband(also named Joseph) had a died from mental over-stimulation on the It’s a Small World ride in Anaheim. Sofie was an independent woman. Which meant she was free to make her grandson come home to the family he’d abandoned.

Not that she blamed him. If her folks had been Mormons on top of everything else, she’d have hightailed it out of the Netherlands a decade sooner than she had. But Sofie had high hopes for her son and daughter-in-law, and those hopes didn’t involve life without coffee, tea, or alcohol. As it was, she’d already missed out on two of her grandchildren’s weddings because she wasn’t a Mormon herself(and of course, there’d been that exciting but still unfortunate time she parachuted into the temple in the middle of the third wedding).

Regardless, Joseph’s return was the only card Sofie had left to play. “Jooooseph! Boy, you better light a fire under them britches and come out here to give Grannie some sugar!”

In the Justice Garage

“Pathetic excuses for superheroes…mobs…TV all day…crime running rampant..” Scarlett mumbled to herself, sounding like she was on the edge of sanity as she stocked her old Justice League Utility Belt with equipment none of them had used in ages. She tossed a rusted out can of Shark Repellant Justice Spray over her shoulder.

“Ow! Dude, what was that for? You could’ve hit Barbara Ann!”

Scarlett started to look to see who it was, caught the name, and turned back to her belt. An inflatable doll? Had Studmuffin borrowed her belt sometime?

“What are you doing?”

“About to go night-hawking. Want to come?” She turned around, snapping the utility belt on.

Jo gulped. “Night-hawking?”

“Yeah.” Scarlett strode to the garage door leading outside.

“Joooooseph!” a voice called, still somewhat distant. Jo glanced at the door into the Hall.

“Coming or not, Jo?”

“Can I bring a flashlight?”

“Sure.”

“Then I’m there,” he said, sidling up to her, Barbara Ann resting comfortably over his right shoulder as they walked into the light of the street lamps.

In Phabio’s Penthouse

“That was-“

“Told you I’m bendier after traveling.”

“You never explained why, though.”

“More practice…maneuvering, I guess you’d say, in those tight airplane bathrooms.”

“You mean you-“

“Uh-huh.”

“And you never get caught?”

“Not when it’s the co-pilot or a steward.” Saph winked as she stepped out of the bed.

“Strumpet!”

She laughed as she began to put her clothes back on. “I prefer 'easy.' Or just ‘American woman.’ "

“Stay away phrom meeee-heee,” Phabio sang a good Lenny Kravitz impersonation. Good for a German, at least. He shook his head, grinning. “The poor phoreigners don’t know what to do with you,”

“Oh, they know exactly what to do with me. They just don’t find out how much it costs them until they start looking for their wallet and passport.” Saph reached into her purse, pulling out something wrapped in a white linen cloth.

It was Phabio’s turn to laugh. “Ah, but you don’t cost me anything, do you, my American woman?”

She jumped on the bed next to him suddenly. “Funny you should mention that, actually,” she said, playfully covering his eyes with her left hand.

“What?” He slapped playfully at her hand. “Iph you want dinner out, just name the restaurant.” He was still blinded by her hand as she shook open the cloth to reveal the silver revolver she'd filched from Phabio's collection days ago; using the cloth, she held it up.

“No, I don’t feel like going out tonight,” she said, in one swift motion dropping her hand from his eyes, taking his hand, and positioning it to hold the gun to his head. His hand was holding the revolver now, with her hand over his.

She squeezed his finger on the trigger, and the gun cocked. He jumped slightly, and the revolver gleamed in his peripheral vision. “Saph…what are you doing?”

“Nothing, Phabio, it’s all you. Too bad you’re not leaving a note to explain why.”

“But-arrgh!” he shouted as he tried to wrest her off of him, but she was much stronger than he’d expected. Much stronger than any girl her size should be.

“Useless, Phabio,” Saph said in a near growl. “Should’ve spent less time in the office and more in the gym.”

For a second he flashed back on her eyes minutes ago. So different from how they had been before, he’d noticed then. Something had changed. “Why are you doing this, Saph? I deserve to know why.”

“No,” she said, tightening her finger over his, pulling the trigger taut. “You don’t.”