A single shot rang out, and I started toward the kitchen. I heard Michael shout, “Why? Why did you come after me?” Then I heard the meaty sound of a fist striking the side of a head and a body falling to the floor. I came around the end of the counter and saw Michael Holt, his shirt torn, standing over the last of the gunmen.
“Are you all right?” I asked. He nodded, his eyes roaming over me as if he were doing triage on me. “They never touched me. Nice move with the silverware, by the way.”
“Thanks.” He paused, as if just realizing that we had come up with the same move at the same moment. “We must have caught the same chop-socky movie last week or something, huh?”
“Or something. So, what makes you think this bunch was after you in particular?” I already knew the answer, but I wanted his take on it.
“Big mouth there at our table started making cracks about my being with a white gal, but he didn’t say anything about the couple two tables behind you.” He was right. I had noticed that they were a mixed-race couple as well. “The racism was a cover; he had something against one of us, and since I was the one he was hassling…”
“Sounds about right to me.” I pulled him to the side so I could speak without being overheard. “Look, let me make a call or two. I have some connections. Maybe we can have a private talk with these guys when they regain consciousness.” Somehow, I had expected him to act more surprised at the suggestion. I chalked it up to him knowing that my mother was a former police officer. Let him believe that. A call from the chairman of the JSA would get us a private room with any of the gunmen.
It was after midnight when we left the precinct house. As Michael drove through the snowy streets to my home, we discussed what we had found out.
“I had no idea that Jeff Conrad was working with his brother to rob me. The Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the embezzling, but I wasn’t expecting anything more to come of it. Apparently, Jeff and his brother Wayne have done this a few times before, switching off between them. Wayne Conrad must have thought I took the job in your data center as a way of tracking him down.”
“That hardly seems possible. I can’t see someone using a computer to track something like that down, especially from within a place like the Fair Play Clubs,” I said. “Maybe if you were working with some of the Wall Street computers up in New York City. Officer Clancy said he would probably be able to get a warrant for Conrad’s arrest by morning. Planning to go along for the arrest?”
He looked over at me while he waited for a light to change. “Actually, I thought we might go and pick him up ourselves. Just as soon as you change clothes.”
“What are you talking about?” I glanced down at myself, the glow of the traffic light playing across my white, woolen overcoat. Before he could answer, the light changed, and my coat seemed to glow a bright green.
“I’m talking about a green tunic, just about that shade,” he said, nodding toward my coat. “With red tights and a red cowl, Miss Terrific.”
“How? How did you know?”
“I can’t explain, but I know a lot more about you than you could ever guess.” He turned his attention back to the road. “I figure it’s better if we pick up Wayne with you in costume. The police will give Miss Terrific a little more latitude than they will Geri Sloane.”
“You realize, of course, that if you tell anybody it could do all kinds of harm to me, my family, and the Club?”
“Don’t worry, Geri,” he said, a smile forming on his face. “Keeping secrets is a hobby of mine.”
I was still trying to figure out how much Michael knew and how he knew it, as I picked a lock on Wayne Conrad’s mansion at four in the morning. The huge granite edifice on the outskirts of Gateway City featured the latest in security systems, but I was easily able to identify and bypass all of its components. Now it was child’s play to unlock the deadbolt on the kitchen entrance.
“I’m mighty glad you’re on the side of the angels, lady!” exclaimed Michael Holt as he looked over my shoulder. “You’d make one hell of a cat burglar, otherwise.”
“Don’t even joke about that!” I hissed under my breath, reminded of my doppelgänger from an alternate timeline, Madame Mayhem. “Got that package ready?”
“Right here.” Michael hefted a paper-wrapped mass in his hands. There was a click, and the door swung open. Before we could step through, we heard the sounds of skittering paws, followed by a loud bark. Michael unwrapped the parcel and tossed the contents into the room. “Bombs away!”
From around a corner, two large Rottweilers came running toward the door. Halfway across the room, they stopped and bent down to investigate the item that Michael had thrown. They settled down on their haunches and started tearing at it.
“Come on!” I whispered. “I was hoping for Dobermans. Those steaks won’t slow these pups down for long.”
“Not to worry. While you were buying those, I was buying a bottle of sleeping pills. Those hounds don’t know it, but they’re about to knock off for the evening.”
We slipped through while the dogs ate their treat. Sure enough, they finished it up, but before they could start chasing us, they collapsed to the floor.
“Now to find Wayne Conrad!”
We made our way through the darkened house up to the third floor, where I suspected the owner would have his bedroom. There were lights on in the third-floor hallway, and I could hear voices as well. I put out a hand to stop Michael. I slipped my other hand into a pocket in my tunic and took out a small capsule. Trying to gauge how far away those voices were, I threw the capsule with a sharp, underhanded motion. It struck the ceiling in the hallway, shattering. Highly concentrated sneezing gas spread throughout the hall, and I heard at least four distinct voices sneezing as it irritated their nasal membranes. I counted ten seconds from the time the capsule burst, the time needed for the gas to disperse, then we charged up the stairs.
One man was on the floor, apparently overcome by an allergic reaction. Three others were clustered near the window at the end of the hall. Between them and us a door opened, and three more large thugs came out.
“Looks like somebody is just a bit paranoid, don’t you think?” said Michael, springing forward to tackle one of the men emerging into the hall.
Since he had chosen the low attack, I took advantage of it. I leaped, touching down lightly on Michael’s back, then springing over him and the three nearest men. I landed right in front of the three gathered by the window, launching into a spinning kick that left one man sprawled over the sill of the now-broken window. Coming out of the spin, I grabbed an arm and pulled its owner toward me as I raised my knee. The breath rushed out of him with a WHUFFF while I brought the other arm down on the back of his head. Instead of letting him drop to the floor, I grabbed his collar and his belt and swung him around into my remaining opponent. They both crashed into the wall and fell limp to the floor.
I turned to see if Michael needed any help, just in time to see him execute a perfect hip throw with the last of his trio. The other two were already lying on the floor.
“Very nice!” I commented.
“Thank you. Jiu jitsu is something of a hobby of mine.” It was the second time he had used that phrase, and it was starting to rattle me.
“What’s going on, here? Why do I get the feeling that you aren’t who you say you are?”
“Not now, Miss T. Let’s take care of Conrad first.”
After his group of bodyguards, Wayne Conrad was a pushover. We stepped into the room that we had seen the guards emerge from, and there he was. Seated in a wingback chair near French doors that led out to a balcony, he looked for all the world like a mousy little accountant who had been roused from his sleep.
“I was afraid this was going to happen, ever since Jeff died. A pity, really. It was very nice while it lasted.” He held his hands out in front of himself, as if expecting one of us to place handcuffs on him. “For whatever it’s worth, Mr. Holt, I am very sorry about your wife. Jeffrey should have left well enough alone. We were all set to leave the country the next day. If he had not panicked, you would still have your wife, and I would still have my brother and the proceeds of our exploits.”
“What, no last minute schemes, no hidden pistol?” I tried to keep my banter light, while I watched to see how Michael would react to what appeared to be a sincere apology.
“I hope that is truly the case, Conrad. I’d really like to believe you.” Michael moved to a bedside phone to call the police, as I stepped up to make sure Wayne Conrad wasn’t going anywhere until they arrived.
What had started with dinner ended over breakfast at my townhouse. We shared the cooking duties. I mixed up eggs and other ingredients for omelettes, while Michael mixed and rolled dough for some kind of pastry.
“People wonder why some folks dress up in costumes and run around all night. They should try it. I feel like I could go for another twelve hours!”
I knew how he felt. “Yes, I get kind of wired after a fight. But I hope you aren’t going to get in the habit of running around, looking for crooks to beat up. Besides,” I said as I pinched off a piece of a turnover that he was taking from the oven, “I think you might make a better cook than crime-fighter.”
“Oh, baking’s just a hobby of mine.”
OK, let’s just say his timing was bad and leave it at that, OK? The long-handled fork that I was whisking eggs with was suddenly under his chin as he strained to keep his head high enough to keep from getting punctured. “All right, what gives? The only person I’ve ever heard use that phrase was my father, and he’s been dead for almost eight years!” I couldn’t stop the tears that were forming in my eyes, so I just let them flow.
“Easy, Geri, easy. You’re right; I haven’t exactly been forthcoming. Just back off with the fork, and I’ll explain.” I put the fork down and tried to concentrate on pouring the egg mixture into the pan and cooking it as he spoke. “Ten years ago, I was a student at Gateway University. I was majoring in Computer Science, but I somehow got an English professor as my advisor — your father. At first I thought it was a mixup, but after the first semester I would have fought anyone who suggested changing it. Your dad took me under his wing, and I discovered that he knew more about just about any subject than I could ever imagine. He never let on that he was the same Terry Sloane who founded the Fair Play Clubs and who held the patents on a couple of dozen electronics breakthroughs from the ’50s. I only found out when he died during my senior year. The only thing about himself that he ever did talk about was his wonderful daughter.”
That started the tears flowing again, and Michael very tentatively put his arms around me, trying to comfort me. For a moment it felt like I was back in Daddy’s warm embrace. Then I stepped back and looked up at him. “You really learned a lot from him, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. It’s almost like he was training me sometimes, like he had found someone to carry on a role for him. It was only when I saw news reports about you, though, that I made the connection between Terry Sloane and Mister Terrific. I don’t know if he was thinking of passing that mantle on to me, but I don’t think it was needed. You’re doing just fine in his stead.”
“Thank you, Michael. I like to think so.” I slid our omelettes onto the plates, and we sat down to eat in silence. There was something nagging at the back of my mind, but it took me a while before it came to me. When it did, I chose to let it go, at least for now.
Gateway University didn’t have a Computer Science degree program.