by Starsky Hutch 76
The convertible ’57 Thunderbird that drove down the dirt road looked as if it had driven straight from the decade of its creation to arrive in Slaughter Swamp three decades later. That was because it had few of its original parts, thanks to its owner putting it in so many hazardous situations over the years. It had been shot, wrecked, scorched, blasted, flipped, and even dropped. Luckily, Franko Morelli was the kind of owner willing to pay any price to get his baby back in pristine working order. With each bump along the uneven trail, Franko grimaced, knowing that another repair lay in the future to fix the antique car’s alignment.
The car came to a halt, and Franko pulled on the emergency brake, switched off the ignition, and stepped out of the car. Winforth climbed out of the passenger seat and followed him around to the back of the car.
“You’ve already got digging equipment in your trunk?” Winforth asked.
“Among other things,” Franko said. “Only, usually it ain’t diamonds I’m burying out here, and the only one who’d consider them treasures is their moms.”
“Oh,” Winforth said, watching as Franko opened his trunk. His eyes grew wide as its contents came into view.
“I will admit it has been some time since I last had to utilize one of these implements, but I recall the design of shovels as being somewhat more rudimentary,” Winforth said.
“Even with those million-dollar words, you’re still the same old smart ass,” Franko chuckled, hefting up a large, high-tech-looking weapon from the trunk and hanging it over his shoulder by its strap. He pulled out an equally sophisticated-looking pair of goggles and pulled them over his head to let them hang from his head.
“What is the purpose of all this hardware?” Winforth asked.
“The cannon here is in case anyone’s gotten wind of our buried treasure out here,” Franko said. He pushed a button on the top of it, causing a thin red light to issue forth from a place above the barrel. “Plus, this and the goggles will help me find where I last moved our rocks. I’ve changed hiding places so many times over the years whenever I’ve gotten a little itchy that that it’s hard to keep track. Not to mention this swamp seems to keep changing on me.”
“Yes, it is pretty overgrown,” Winforth said, looking around at their surroundings. “But how will these tools help?”
“I’ve sprayed the hiding place with a paint that only shows up when hit with this infra-red light and only with these goggles.”
“That is some of the latest military ordinance from STAR Labs, if I am not mistaken,” Winforth said, looking at the goggles. “Used to detect camouflaged rogue agents by detecting their body heat.”
“You know your stuff,” Franko said, impressed. “But what I sprayed the area down with will duplicate that when we hit it with the right wavelength. And luckily, it’s water resistant, so it should still be where I left it.”
“So how does an old crook like you know about all of this?” Winforth asked.
“I could ask you the same thing. Anyways, I didn’t stay alive this long by not being at the top of my game,” Franko said. “Speaking o’ which, we’re not getting any younger here, so let’s get a move on.”
The two men donned wading boots, picked up the shovels sitting in the trunk, and began their trek through the murky swamp.
“So what do you plan to do with your share of the jewels?” Winforth asked.
“I dunno,” Franko said thoughtfully. “Maybe trade in this old suit for a Hawaiian shirt and buy myself a place on one of those islands where the women like to walk around in grass skirts with their ya-yas hanging out.” This drew a chuckle from Winforth.
“We’re getting close,” Franko said, bringing his goggles up as he began scanning the area with the infrared beacon. The two walked in tense silence as he continued to scan the perimeter.
Franko gave a swing of his rifle, and the beacon scanned an area between two small trees. A mass of brilliant red flared up in the view from his goggles. “Bingo!” Franko said, pointing to the area.
“Thanks for pointing it out for us, pops!” a fast, high-pitched voice said as a blur moved past them, filling the air with laughter.
“What the hell is that?” Winforth said, letting his butler demeanor crack as he realized the shovel had been taken from his hands. He brought his arm up to shield himself from the sudden shower of dirt and swamp goo.
“Oh, just some super-powered punks who have no clue who they’re messing wit’,” Franko said calmly, raising up his blaster. Through his goggles, he could clearly see a visible heat trail rapidly growing along the path Bluestreak moved along. Franko drew a bead on the trail, firing ahead where it looked as if Bluestreak would be running.
“Holy %$#&!” Bluestreak yelped, nearly missing being perforated by the rapid gunfire.
“Cool it, old man!” a voice said as an enormous hand on an elongated arm reached out and knocked Franko and Winforth off their feet. Stretch O’Brien stepped out from beneath the foliage from where he had been hiding.
“Now I recognize you!” Franko said through gritted teeth as he started to rise. “You’re one o’ them punks who took on the Junior JSA. Well, you got yer asses handed to you then, and you ain’t dealing with kids now.”
“Stay down, old man,” Stretch said. “You’re outta yer league here.”
“Oh, I got just what it takes to deal wit’ the likes of you,” Franko said. From his pocket, he pulled out a dart, slipped it into a slot on the side of his blaster, and fired.
Stretch moved to try to stop him, but he wasn’t quick enough. The dart hit him square in the center of the palm reaching for the weapon. Stretch drew his hand back and did his best to maintain his cool composure as he plucked it out. “Is that the best you’ve got? Ha ha ha!” he laughed.
He suddenly realized he couldn’t stop laughing. His sunglasses fell from his face from the force of his laughter, and he fell to his knees, hitting the murky surface of Slaughter Swamp. His eyes grew wide with horror as his mouth pulled back into the wide rictus of a Joker-venom-induced grin.
“Is that…?” Winthrop asked in a slightly queasy-sounding voice as he stared at Stretch.
“The boss used to have me leave his calling card from time to time when he couldn’t be there to do it himself,” Franko said.
“You sonofabitch!” the high-speed voice said, returning with a blur.
Franko suddenly found himself being pummeled by a series of blows, knocking his goggles from his face. Their strength alone wouldn’t be enough to fell him. He had been hit with far worse in his time. It was the rapidity. As he fell, dropping the blaster, he shouted, “Winforth! A little help here!”
Winforth grabbed the blaster and fired, trying to connect with Bluestreak without hitting Franko.
“Ha ha ha!” Stretch laughed hysterically, tears streaming from the corners of his wide, unblinking eyes. “Just… ha ha ha! Just get me the hell outta here! Ha ha ha! I’m dyin’ over here!” In a flash, Bluestreak swept up his friend, throwing him over his shoulder, and took off.
Winthrop helped Franko to his feet, and Franko quickly grabbed the blaster from him and fired at the path forming in the foliage. “Run all you like, boy!” Franko bellowed. “When you messed with Franko Morelli, you drew the forces of hell down upon you! And you can’t outrun hell!”
As Bluestreak looked over his shoulder in panic, he thought that Franko, bloodied, muddy and defiant, did indeed look like something that had crept up from the bowels of Hell. It made him run all the faster, pausing only long enough to pick up the package he had dropped off five miles away before returning to check on his friend.
“All my fault… all my fault…” he murmured to himself as he ran. “Can’t end like this… Don’t worry, Stretch… gonna get help… can’t go out like this…”
Franko cursed as he spat out a tooth, accompanied by blood and spittle. “Crap,” he said, looking down at it. “Ain’t like I got too many real ones left.”
“They got the diamonds,” Winforth said ruefully.
“@#$%. Guess retirement’s gonna have to wait.”
“Ah, the sleeper awakens!” a voice said.
The lids of Stretch O’Brien’s eyes parted to reveal a scruffy young man with longish, shaggy red hair wearing a lab coat and a Captain Carrot T-shirt. As he leaned over him, he said, “That was a really close call. That Joker venom is some pretty nasty stuff. I’ve only heard of one other guy who survived it. Of course, he got a lot smaller dose than you did, and he still got stuck with that creepy-as-hell smile for the rest of his life.”
Stretch raised himself up in his bed, bringing his hand up to his face. Behind the red-haired man, he could see the worried expressions of Bluestreak and Maggie.
“Don’t worry,” the scruffy redhead said. “You’ve still got your normal facial movement. Whatever it is in the O’Brien bloodstream that allows you to stretch managed to help me keep you alive and fight off the permanent grin.”
“Uh, thanks. Who are you, anyway?” Stretch asked.
“The name’s Lance,” the red-haired man said, extending his hand to Stretch. “Whenever you less-than-legal types need patching up, I’m the main guy they call. Your buddy Mitch here called me.”
“You’re a doctor?” Stretch asked, making Lance give a wry half-smile.
“Not in the official sense,” he answered, making quotes with his fingers at the word official. “But would you really want one of those so-called official doctors who happen to be criminals working on you? You’d probably wake up with tentacles or something.”
“Guess not,” Stretch chuckled.
“Neither would anyone else. That’s what keeps me in business.”
“So you really make a living patching up crooks?” Maggie asked.
“Well, that and selling certain youth-enhancing drugs,” Lance said. “I’m not just a dealer. I’m also a customer. Bet you can’t guess how old I am.”
“How old?” Maggie asked.
“Old enough to have known Franko Morelli when he was the Red Hood’s number one guy,” Lance said. He turned back to Stretch and added, “Franko and Winforth have also been customers of mine over the years, so don’t beat yourself up too bad over nearly getting your asses handed to you by a couple of senior citizens. Their faces may look a little old, but that’s about it.”
“Uh, yeah. Thanks,” Stretch said, looking down sheepishly and rubbing the back of his neck.
“Now, there’s the matter of my payment…”
Stretch, Maggie, and Bluestreak looked at each other uneasily. “Oh, don’t tell me you dragged me all the way over here in the middle of the night without plans of paying me for my services!” Lance exclaimed. “I mean, c’mon. Whatever happened to honor among thieves?”
“Well, y’see, I’m a student, Mitch ain’t ever had a job, and Maggie being in a family way and all, we ain’t exactly got any money,” Stretch said, sounding embarrassed.
Bluestreak held up a diamond. “Will this do?” He turned to Stretch and said, “We can take it out of my share, as payback for nearly getting you killed.”
Stretch’s eyes grew wide as he mouthed, “We got the diamonds?” Bluestreak nodded in reply.
“Man, that’s touching,” Lance grinned. “Like something out of a buddy cop movie.” He tossed the diamond in the air and caught it. “Yeah, this’ll do nicely. Real nicely. And even cover any follow-up visits if you need ’em. Not that I think you will.” He pocketed the diamond and reached for his doctor’s bag. “Guess I’ll be getting out of your hair, then.” He looked at Maggie and then Stretch. “You two keep me in mind when the big day comes. I’ve also studied both Pediatrics and Obstetrics. If you need a reference, just give Sportsmaster and Tigress a call.”
After Lance left, Maggie threw her arms around Stretch’s neck and sobbed into his shoulder. “Hey, hey, none of that now,” Stretch said soothingly. “I’m still here. I’m OK, angel heart.”
Bluestreak looked down at the floor guiltily. “Guys, I’m so sorry.”
When Maggie looked up at him, he felt his stomach lurch. Stretch had told him how she had ripped apart the killer Ape-Face had hired to take them out. Facing something like that would have been far more preferable to her large, teary eyes still filled with the remains of her anguish. He had spent the better part of his life being told he was worthless before running away. Tonight was the first time he truly believed it.
“I’m no good to anybody. My old man was right about that,” Bluestreak said in a voice choked with emotion. “I’m just gonna get the hell out of here, the hell out of your lives, before I can bring you more pain.”
“Mitch, no,” Stretch said weakly, exchanging concerned glances with Maggie. “This ain’t all your fault. The truth is, I wanted a big job like this. The money from that coke we stole from Ape-Face is going fast with tuition and rent and all, and now I’m about to be a dad on top of that! It scared the crap outta me!”
“You never told me you were scared,” Maggie said.
“Well, of course I am! Aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” Maggie said. “But I’m excited at the same time.”
“Me, too, babe,” Stretch said, giving her hand a squeeze. “Me, too. You know, I always said that I’d be more ready to be a dad than my old man was. But when the time came, I was completely blindsided by it. Guess there’s no way to be completely prepared for it. Maybe I was a little too hard on him. ”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I think you’ll make a hell of a lot better dad than my old man did,” Bluestreak said.
“Considering all you’ve told me about the guy, I’d sure hope so,” Stretch said, laughing with Bluestreak. Maggie watched the two friends, smiling with the knowledge that all was well again.
“Well, I’ve still gotta get outta here for a little while, anyway. I’m sure you two would like to be alone, and I need to see about turning our ice into some green.”
“You’re not thinking about trying to cash those things in around here, are you? Franko’s bound to get wind of it!” Stretch said.
“Aw, hell, no,” Bluestreak said. “In another state… maybe a whole ‘nother country!”
“So how long you gonna be gone?” Maggie asked.
“Oh, maybe an hour or two,” Bluestreak said with a wink. And in a flash he was gone.
“Two kids?” Melody said loudly into the phone. “Two kids got my diamonds?”
“Two super-powered youths, Madam,” Winforth corrected from the other end of the phone line. “Under the circumstances, we were unable to retain the jewels.”
“Hmmph,” Melody pouted.
“I believe that, after our encounter, at least one of them won’t be around to engage in adult super-villainy.”
“That’s good to know,” Melody said, sounding a little impressed. “But that doesn’t help us with the matter of obtaining diamonds for our little endeavor.”
“No. No, I don’t suppose it does,” Winforth said, sounding downcast.
“Fortunately, I have another lead,” Melody said. “That man that you hired for your surveillance job called, and there is a fortune in diamonds just sitting there waiting to be grabbed.”
“You want to rob the Wayne estate?” Winforth said. “That’s a pretty tall order. I do have someone who would want in on this sort of foray, as luck would have it, however.”
“Whoosh,” Melody said sharply. “I never said anything about bringing in anyone else. We’ve already got that fake termite inspector of yours who told us about the gems. So we’re already stuck with him.”
“That particular gentleman has already been well-compensated for his efforts and will keep his silence,” Winforth said. “Franko Morelli is someone whose skills we can really use. He’s a pro. Plus, to be frank, we owe him. Thanks to us, he just lost his nest egg that he was keeping for his retirement. So he will be looking for a means of replacing it.”
“Is this the part where I’m supposed to feel guilty?” Melody said. “The poor old crook had the diamonds stolen from him that he stole first. Aww…”
No, of course not. Sociopaths aren’t capable of emotions like guilt, Winforth thought to himself but dared not say aloud. “My diamonds, too, if you will recall. The point is, he’s good. Real good. It’s almost an insult to compare him to that fellow I hired for the surveillance job. When talent like this is available, you jump on it, especially if you are planning on taking on as high a profile mark as Richard Grayson. You want the best. Believe me when I tell you that.”
Melody pondered the repercussions if the job went badly. “OK. He’s in,” she said sighing. “But we pay him his share in cash. We need all the diamonds we can get.”
“I don’t believe he will have a problem with that,” Winforth said. “I have a feeling that, by now, Franko is sick to death of diamonds.”