by Dan Swanson
Mitch Mercury didn’t wake up until noon-fifteen. With everyone talking about some stupid TV commercial last night, he hadn’t been able to find his usual three-B party last night (beach, bimbos, and beer) so he’d stayed home and drank by himself. He’d been pretty wasted, but with Bluestreak’s super-fast metabolism, a hangover usually lasted only a few seconds. He checked the fridge, and yes, he was out of beer. Damn, had he really polished off a whole case? That was a new record.
He could have zipped down to the convenience store and ripped off a couple of cases for today before the clerk could even blink, but he’d decided not to lift from any place nearby. Someday he might slip up and slow down long enough for someone to recognize him as Mitch Crandall from Crime Alley, or even as Bluestreak from the Junior Injustice Society, and he liked living on the beach like this. Besides, it was really hot out and time to stroll, dig the rays, and check out the bikinis on the beach. He wore a cut-off T-shirt and some tight shorts, looking bad today, and he knew they’d also be checking him out. Maybe a couple more of them would get lucky today.
The pay phone at the corner was ringing as he walked by. This actually happened a lot. He had checked it out a couple of times, and it turned out that a lot of the beach bunnies gave out that number when they met guys at bars. Some days it was a real kick talking to these losers.
“I can’t believe you’re calling here after what you did with my sister! Hey, Pa! He’s on the line now!”
“Thought I was a real girl, eh? Sure fooled you!”
“Nah, she ain’t here. She’s out working off the dough you didn’t pay her!”
“Detective MacGarret, Homicide. Please don’t hang up; we’d like to ask you some questions! By the way, this call is being recorded.”
He said things like that. But he had more fun things on his mind today, so he just kept walking.
Every block or so along the beach promenade there was a bank of pay phones. He didn’t notice right away, but after about four blocks, he realized that each time he approached a bank of phones, one of them started ringing — and it stopped ringing as soon as he passed by. It had to be coincidence, but by the sixth time it started to get spooky.
He started playing tricks on the phones. He would sneak up on the next set of phones, pretending he was watching some chick or other, and as long as he didn’t get too close, nothing happened. Then he’d cross some invisible line, and one of the damn phones would start ringing. He walked by another set until the ringing stopped, then turned around suddenly and headed back the way he had come. Ring, ring, ring.
OK, somebody was watching him and was playing a practical joke. He had to admit that it was pretty good — in fact, he wished he’d thought of it first. But he wasn’t in the mood to play. At the next intersection, he turned away from the beach and headed into town. That was good; there were lots of tall buildings to cut off the view from the beach and no pay phones in sight. He usually avoided the package store because it was expensive, but he wanted a beer now, and damn the expense. Good; there were no phones. By now the practical joker must be bugging somebody else. He’d have to figure out who did it and get them back later.
Except the pay phone outside the package store now started ringing. Damn, this was starting to make him mad. They must have been following him around in a car or something. Did they have all the pay phone numbers in the city? He looked around but couldn’t figure out which car was following him. But it didn’t matter; he’d had enough — he didn’t even want that beer any more. Across the street was a yard with a hedge around it. He ducked behind the hedge and vanished.
One second and two-hundred miles later, he stopped outside a bar, once again ready for a beer. He’d been here a few times years before on road trips, and it was good to see that the place was still in business. He walked in, bought a pitcher, and headed for the pool table in the back room. There was always some sucker around he could hustle for a few bucks — and usually a couple of pool-room honeys who did a little hustling of their own. He was putting his pitcher down when the pay phone rang. He was so startled, he actually spilled some beer.
It had to be a coincidence. He ignored it, poured a glass, and picked up a cue. The phone stopped ringing, was quiet for a minute or two, and then rang again. One of the chicks looked annoyed and finally answered. She said a few words, and then looked right at him and started to say something.
Mitch hated to waste beer. At super-speed, he filled the glasses of the best-looking chicks in the bar, spilled the rest down the T-shirt of the babe on the phone, and was long gone before she even got wet.
He began thinking of his old buddies in the Junior Injustice Society. He hadn’t seen Savant and Faust for a while. Dollface drove him crazy, but she was cute. He hoped they wouldn’t be out on a caper somewhere. Damn, sometimes he wished he and Stretch were back on the streets, hustling for nickels. But now Stretch was going to be a daddy. (*) His life was so complex these days it was driving him crazy.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Batman Family: The Wedding March, Chapter 2: A Strange Turn of Events.]
At hypersonic speed, he reached the outskirts of Gotham City in only a few minutes. He’d never figured out why a bunch of super-villains wanted a secret hideout so close to JSA Headquarters, but he had never claimed to be the brains behind the group. He had to slow down to check landmarks, as he hadn’t been there often before.
He realized there was a pay phone on the next block. As he approached, he could hear it ringing. That had to be a coincidence. At the speed he was moving, his practical joker would have had to call it when he was several miles away to have it ring exactly now. And how could he possibly have guessed that Mitch would head for Gotham? Still, he was totally relieved when the next phone booth he passed was silent. Wait, there was a sign on the door; it must have been out of order. But he had to know for sure.
Totally spooked, almost beyond rational thought, he moved forward and read the sign, which read:
Answer the phone, Mitch!
In an apparently abandoned building at an unspecified location somewhere in the continental United States, Number Three — a member of the Illuminati Council of Seven — waited impatiently for Mitch Mercury to answer the phone. She was dressed in a very expensive, very conservative navy blue business suit, and she sat behind a very massive wooden executive desk, the kind that seemed to sprawl across several acres. But her other surroundings were anything but corporate America.
She was in what had at one time been a conference room. Seated around the conference table were a dozen men and women, nude and shivering, holding hands. They all had RJ-45 sockets surgically implanted in their foreheads, and Ethernet cables ran from each socket to a computer under the table. The table itself was covered with piles of esoteric apparatus and weird junk, most of which had a mystical appearance, though some was quite mundane.
Each of this sweaty Devil’s Dozen was surrounded by a sickly green aura, and these auras flowed together to form an insubstantial blanket on the table. Supported by this blanket was a spinning globe of the Earth several feet in diameter.
The auras around each person seemed to pulse, though not in any discernable rhythm. Each pulse seemed to tear something vital away from one of these poor people, and with each pulse, the green aura dimmed very slightly, almost imperceptibly. But Number Three did not notice the weakening.
The phone on Number Three’s desk was connected to the globe by a brightly glowing thread of light. A minute ago, that thread had terminated in a pea-sized bead of light on the West Coast, and now the bead was in Gotham City. Number Three knew that whenever Mitch Mercury moved, that bead would move, tracking his position, and whenever he stopped, the magic spell that had created that bead, and which was maintained by the unwilling enslaved mages in this room, would put her phone in touch with whatever pay phone happened to be closest to Mercury. She smiled when she thought of the other things she could command via that spell, such as a sign hanging on a out-of-order phone booth.
“It would be so much easier if he carried a kirkcom,” she observed with a sigh. All of the trusted senior members of the Illuminati carried kirkcoms, small telephones that connected to the regular telephone system through radio signals. “I wish we could have advanced that phase of our plan and released kirkcom technology twenty years ago! Sometimes it is just so tedious to suppress innovations.”
She said that last very softly and looked over her shoulder nervously as she did. Though she knew that Vandal Savage was a government prisoner, he had surprised the Illuminati before. She made a mental note to be more careful in the future. He usually responded unpleasantly to any criticism, however mild, to his master plan.
The slave closest to Three turned around and tried to talk to her. It might, she thought, alleviate her boredom to hear what the woman had to say, at least until Mercury answered the phone. And if she said something Three wasn’t willing to hear, that might be justification for another form of amusement later. She was getting tired of this particular slave, anyway. She signaled to her servant to speak.
“Mistress Three, this spell is difficult to maintain. Sooner or later, some of us may be too drained to continue, and the spell will fail.”
Yes, further amusement was definitely on the schedule, once this Mercury thing was resolved. She didn’t agree with rest of the Council about the decision to offer this pathetic, small-time punk a job. There must be several more suitable alternatives available. But she had been outvoted — and because of her objections, they had assigned her to make contact.
It was not necessarily dangerous or impossible, or even bad form, to disagree with the Council majority, but there was always a price. They had left the means of contact up to her, and she had decided to test some of her theories regarding magic.
“If the spell fails, or if you break the circle while talking to me, Ms. Frost, I think it would go badly for you, yes? And your family and friends, and their friends as well.” Frost had seen evidence that Number Three would carry out those threats. Somewhere in the computers hidden in this building, there were retribution lists, and Frost knew who was on her list.
It was only a small consolation to her to know that the computers in this building were totally isolated from the rest of the world, and nobody but Number Three could access them. Nobody scared her like Number Three did.
“I understand, Mistress, but it is my duty to warn you. This spell is poorly designed and assembled of mismatched parts, and even our best efforts cannot hold it together much longer!”
Three’s pride was hurt, which added significantly to the entertainment plans for later. No one would have guessed from her voice, however. “Ms. Frost, thanks to the results of the Compumage project, I know more about magic than anyone who has ever lived!”
“Mistress, you may know more facts about magic, but magic is about more than facts. You cannot treat magic like electricity and control it through technology! Magic is alive, and must be handled by the living.” As she spoke, the color of her aura changed somewhat. Three touched a button on the keyboard on her desk, and Frost screeched in pain, and the color of her aura quickly changed to match the others.
“As you can see, Frost, through my computers I control you, who live, and through you, I control magic. Now, I think it best you return to your work. Remember that I hold your life in my hands!”
Frost was still in agony, but she kept it under control and tried once again. “Mistress, you did not design this spell to move as fast as the boy can move. Each time he runs, it weakens us further. Soon, one will break the circle, and all will die!”
Three shook her head angrily. “I’ve studied this fully. Breaking the circle will be just like turning off an electric switch. The magic will vanish, just as a light goes out. It won’t kill you, but I promise you will die shortly afterwards, and you will die in agony!”
Frost shuddered. She had seen some of Three’s other slaves die. She had long ago vowed that she would not die that way as well, no matter what it cost her.
Though she was a sorceress rather than an engineer, Winter Frost had been enslaved by Number Three long enough to have picked up some basic knowledge of electricity.
Wrong metaphor, fool. When you cut a constant flow of electric current through an inductor, the stored power must immediately discharge. She didn’t say this; she merely bent her head in subjugation and turned back to the table. “As you say, Mistress.” She no longer even dreamed of saving her own life.
The bead of light started to move again, this time more quickly than before.
Mitch Mercury was just about fed up, as well as freaked out, about this situation. He disappeared again, and a few seconds later, he was in the middle of Death Valley. No fraggin’ phone booths here! he thought to himself, almost frantically. He sat down on a boulder and tried to think. He hadn’t thought there was anybody in the world so much faster than he was to be able to pull this one off.
He jumped and screamed when a nearby phone rang. As he rocketed away, he turned his head and saw another phone booth in the middle of the desert. It couldn’t be super-speed, so it had to be magic. Where could he go to get away from magic? He had an idea; in less time than it took to rethink it, he was miles underground in Mammoth Caves. He had no idea how he’d reached this spot, as he had just vibrated through rock walls and floors to get here, and no idea how to get back, either. It was pitch black, and he had never been so alone in his life.
Still, this time he wasn’t even surprised when the phone rang. A light came on in the phone booth in the middle of nowhere as the door slid open. Even super-speedsters got tired, and Mitch never made an effort to stay in good condition. He just didn’t feel like running anymore. And besides, what was the point? But he wasn’t just going to give in, either.
“It’s your dime — make it worth my time!”
Totally ignoring his sarcasm, the sexiest female voice he had ever heard spoke to him. “Mr. Mercury, the Committee to Re-energize American Politics would like to offer you a job. A couple million dollars for a couple of days of your time. Are you interested?”
Mitch was shuddering. He couldn’t believe that any woman’s voice could possibly affect him like this. His Junior Injustice Society teammate Faust could have told him it had to be magical augmentation, but Mitch didn’t have enough experience with magic yet. He forced himself to speak. His voice was weak and wavering until he got mad at himself. He’d never impress this woman if he made a fool out of himself.
“Um… er… Well, um… I am between gigs right now. Can we meet in person and talk it over?”
She laughed, then purred in his ear. “I’d really love to, but I’m… occupied with another matter right now, Mr. Mercury. I should be available in time to meet you in person with your payment, and we can discuss some other little jobs I have in mind!”
“What’s the job?” He tried to sound nonchalant, but his voice quivered. She knew she had him. This spell was working just fine, as was the telephony spell. Frost would soon pay the ultimate price for daring to doubt her.
“Go here,” she said, giving him an address in Gotham City, “and tell them Number Three sent you. They’ll be expecting you, and they’ll give you all the details. And when you’re done, let them know, and they’ll get word to me. I’ll be waiting…” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “…anxiously!” She made a kissy sound and hung up.
Mercury stood twitching in the darkness for several seconds, even after the phone booth vanished. He could still hear that voice, caressing his ear, and he knew he had to meet that woman. He shook himself violently and was gone, vibrating through stone on his way to the surface. He hoped the Gotham office would let him get started right away.
Meanwhile, back in the abandoned building there was chaos. One of the slaves around the conference table had screamed and then burst into green flame and exploded violently, killing two more of the circle. And, as Winter Frost had predicted, there was a violent discharge of magical energy.
The headlines on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News the next day screamed, “Explosion in abandoned building!” The story mentioned that a dozen bodies has been found, and there were suspicions of Satanic rituals gone wrong. But there was almost nothing left, and fire investigators doubted that they would ever learn anything more. They were right.