by Dan Swanson
It was the wee hours of the morning in the Opal City business district, and the rest of the city, for that matter. There was a local saying that anyone out and about at that hour was either a doctor or a crook. Well, that wasn’t quite true; there might be reporters out then, too.
Anyone watching the tiny park near the Capital Building would have been surprised to see two well-dressed gentlemen seated on one of the benches, deep in conversation, just as if it were the middle of the day. Of course, the watcher would have to peer very hard, as well-trimmed trees and hedges blocked out the light from the nearby street lamps, leaving the bench in a pool of deep darkness.
It wouldn’t be very healthy to be that watcher, though. A half-dozen other men, in the employ of one or the other of the figures on the bench, were scattered around the area to make sure there weren’t any watchers. What would happen to anyone they found wouldn’t be pleasant — probably not fatal, but sometimes mistakes happened. These men remained very well hidden, and they were quite good at their jobs, and very patient. A homeless drunk had wandered nearby, unknowingly putting himself at risk, but he had never noticed anything, and so had been allowed to stumble away, ignorant of his close brush with terror and pain.
And yet, even with all the precautions used by the sentries, the early morning meeting was under observation. The observer was tall and slender, dressed entirely in midnight blue and black, wearing a black trenchcoat and a tight fitting black mask, which left no skin exposed. A close examination would have shown that the mask didn’t confine her black hair, which fell below her shoulders, and a U.S. Army night-vision snooper scope over her eyes, the power pack carried in a backpack concealed under the trenchcoat. She was carefully carrying a five-foot quarterstaff, which was colored flat black. In the other hand she had an unlit flashlight, and there was a camera slung around her neck. The camera and flashlight were also flat black. She moved carefully and very quietly, clearly aware of the positions of the six sentries and their two principals seated on the bench. So far she had managed to remain hidden from the sentries as she approached, but that was about to change.
If you didn’t recognize Lily DeLuna in search of a story, that wouldn’t be surprising. She didn’t normally wear a costume when she was working. But she wasn’t normally trying to overhear a conversation between a gangster boss and a top city official at three A.M., either. When she had learned of this meeting, she had put together the outfit, hoping she would be able to approach without being seen. She had hoped the two principals would come alone, but they were too paranoid for that. It was kind of exciting to be dressed up as a mystery-woman, and she had even made up her own fanciful code name, Moonflower. She had to keep reminding herself that this wasn’t a game. It could mean her life if those thugs caught her.
Lily had hoped that she would be able to get close enough to overhear the conversation between the seated men, but she realized that, no matter how carefully she moved, this was as close as she was going to get without being caught. She could hear their voices, but was unable to make out what they were saying. She was disappointed but not surprised. She had a backup plan for just this situation. A record of their conversation would be best, but photographs of the two men meeting would be sufficient for the story she was planning to write.
She really didn’t want to have to fight six armed men at once. If they hadn’t had guns, she thought her staff might give her a chance. Very few people who weren’t trained in martial arts realized just how dangerous a weapon a quarterstaff really was. Again, she had to remind herself to be careful; she had never actually fought six opponents before except in training classes, and those opponents had never been thugs. These guys wouldn’t stop fighting if they hurt her.
Working very carefully and quietly, she pulled a flare from a pocket inside the trenchcoat. She set up a tripod and mounted the camera, then aimed it at the bench deep in the shadows. She estimated the distance and set the focus. She had practiced taking pictures using the light from flares several times recently, to find the best combination of shutter speed and film speed to get the best possible pictures. She knew that the best she could hope for would be high-contrast black and white pictures, but the men in the pictures should be readily recognizable, giving her proof that this secret meeting really took place. She set the automatic camera to take five pictures as fast as it could, which would take about seven seconds. She then took a deep breath, and started the timer.
She had ten seconds to prepare or back out. She got ready to ignite and throw the flare, and then waited out the longest ten seconds of her life.
Finally, she pulled the cord on the flare and threw it toward the bench. The shutter clicked just before the flare ignited, and all eight men turned toward the camera. They were looking right at the flare when it ignited, and they were all temporarily blinded.
The first picture was taken in darkness, but the flare provided illumination for the other four pictures. She hoped at least two of the pictures would show their faces, before they got their arms up to block out the light. She had removed the night-vision goggles, turned her back, and closed her eyes, and as soon as she saw the flare light through her eyelids, she opened them again. As soon as the camera stopped clicking, she picked it up and took off running, directly away from the park. She had scouted this route carefully earlier today, and the flare provided enough light that she could run at top speed.
There was total confusion behind her — all eight men had been blinded by the flare and were unable to see. And the flare had rolled close enough to one of the seated men to set his pants leg on fire. Several shots were fired, blindly, before the men on the bench screamed at their sentries to stop shooting before they hurt their bosses. One man and his three bodyguards groped toward the edge of the park, stumbling to their car, while the other man rolled on the ground, screaming in pain as he tried to put out the fire eating at his pant leg. One of his bodyguards had apparently partly recovered his sight, because he wrapped his jacket around his boss’s leg and then lay on top of it to smother the flames. The boss screamed at him, and he quickly jumped up.
As she ran on, Lily paused briefly to activate a fire alarm call box, and then continued running. She risked a look back and was well-satisfied to see that, in some of the buildings around the park, lights were starting to come on. A few of the companies in the area maintained night watchmen, and the screaming and shooting had been enough to alert these watchmen, even those who had been asleep. In only a few minutes, the police and firemen ought to arrive. She thought the conspirators would probably escape, but that was all right. She hoped she had the photo she needed.
As she had planned, she was well away from the area before the men had recovered their sight well enough to start looking for her, and by that time, all they had in mind was getting away before the police arrived. About a quarter-mile away, she stopped, already quite winded. As if running in a trenchcoat wasn’t tiring enough, the power pack for the night-vision goggles weighed about thirty pounds. Lily had planned her escape carefully, though. From behind a hedge around a restaurant that offered outdoor seating, she pulled a bicycle and quickly rode away. Within fifteen minutes of the time she threw the flare, Lily had covered more than two miles.
She had changed directions several times, and she was sure nobody was following her. She was thankful that almost nobody in Opal City was out and about at this hour. She knew that in New York City or Metropolis, the streets would be far from deserted. She’d had to take a chance that somebody might see her riding her bike and wonder what she was doing out at that time in the morning, especially dressed as she was and with a snooper scope. But she had planned the route carefully and encountered no one.
Lily had bought the bike used the day before for two dollars, so it didn’t bother her much to leave it behind. She was near an elementary school, which had a bike rack out back. This must be a safe neighborhood; there were half a dozen bikes left overnight in the rack, and only two of them were locked. She slipped her bike into the rack, hoping that it would eventually end up in the hands of a good kid. She had parked her car a block away. Before she got in, she took off the black trenchcoat and the blue and black shirt she was wearing and put on a blouse that she often wore to work. It went well with the dark midnight blue of her pants. She packed the coat and shirt into the pack with the snooper scope, and stashed the pack in the trunk.
Lily was worried that somebody might remember her car. She drove a supercharged gold 1936 Cord Sportster Cabriolet, which wasn’t exactly a common sight. But she even had that covered; she had often driven her car to work when she was on the night shift at the Opal City Register, and she always drove down this road. She wasn’t working night shift any longer, but she occasionally stopped in to see her friend Betsy, and that was her alibi tonight.
The man who had escaped being burned was John Ross, chairman of the Opal City City Council. The other man, currently nursing a painfully burned leg, was “Boss” Neuertski, one of the leaders of organized crime in Opal. Neither man looked forward to the reaction that would occur if their meeting was exposed to the public. All Ross could do was pray, but Neuertski had other options. After he and his bodyguards had finally hopped into their car, the Boss exploded.
“Stones, what the hell was that? You guys are supposed to protect me! Did you see who that was?” Jackie “Stones” Stonalli was the most senior of the bodyguard crew. Well, he had been the most senior; he had a good idea that he might be starting another career tonight, like singing to the fishes, up close and personal.
“I’m really sorry, Boss! Dat flare blinded me, just like the rest of yas!” Stones wasn’t going to simply give up. He was deliberately reminding the Boss that he wasn’t the only one caught off-guard. He didn’t think it would matter; it was his job, nobody else’s, to keep something like this from happening. “I heard a camera, Boss, and then that damned flare went off, and then someone runnin’ away, but I couldn’t seen nothin’. By da time I could see anything again, the fire siren was blarin’, and Ross and his boys was gone.”
“Mr. Stonalli, you and your boys screwed up big time tonight. If you really heard a camera, and those pictures ever get printed, you’ll end up eating those ‘stones’ you are so proud of, just before ya get two in the hat! Lucky you, you got one chance to redeem yourself. You find me the creep that took those pictures, and bring me da film, and you might live. I’m leavin’ it up to you, Stonalli — get outta here and get goin’!” They had reached Stonalli’s neighborhood. The driver slowed down, but didn’t stop, while the Boss opened the door and shoved Stonalli out. He fell and rolled a couple of times before smashing to a stop against a mailbox. “You probably got till daylight, Stonalli. Better get to work!” The Boss slammed the door, and the car drove off.
Boss Neuertski turned his attention to one of the other bodyguards, Al “Banana” Lopenda. “Banana, I t’ink I’ve got you to thank for putting out the fire on my pants?”
“Yeah, Boss, that was me!” Banana said proudly. Guys who did good things for the Boss usually got a promotion. Banana thought it was about time. He was better than that foul-up Stones any day.
“T’anks, Banana, but couldn’t you have been a little… you know… gentler? That was my leg, you moron!” He was ranting again. Banana just had time to realize he was in trouble, when the Boss shot him. “Tommy, get rid of this trash when we get back to the office! No, first roust the sawbones outta bed and tell him to come round to my office, yesterday or sooner! Then take out the trash!”
Tommy realized he was probably going to live, so all he did was nod his head and say, “You got it, Boss!”
Stones was actually a pretty smart guy, otherwise the Boss would have killed him long ago. He realized he would probably live through this incident regardless of what happened, because the Boss needed him. Everyone else in the organization was a screw-up. Without Stones to tell them what to do, the whole thing would fall apart. But he wasn’t going to take any chances. He would find that creep, and once he got the film back, that creep would pay. He quickly interrupted his own pleasant fantasies of torture to organize a search.
He realized that whoever took the pictures must want to use them either for evidence, or blackmail, or just to expose Boss Neuertski’s connections with John Ross. Still, Ross might have had them taken for protection. So his suspects were the other organized crime groups in the city, cops and private investigators, the press, and Ross himself. No, wait, it couldn’t be the cops, or they would have captured everyone as soon as they had the pictures. And if it was some of the other crooks, he would hear about it soon enough, when the Boss sent him on a raid. Now that was something to look forward to. He hoped it was Boss Alidar. He had a grudge with that one.
Stones sent some goons to Ross’ home. They were to drag Ross back to the Boss’ headquarters and scare him, until Stones could come and ask him some questions. The Boss’ organization kept tabs on a couple of crooked private investigators, and he called them to check out the honest ones. He wanted to know where every P.I. in Opal City was that night, and he wanted to know yesterday. He had a couple of snitches working for the town papers, and when he talked to the one at the Register, he figured he’d hit the jackpot.
“Last week, that bimbo Lily DeLuna, the one who just moved from the night shift, came around and wanted to do an expose on corruption in the city council. I told her Ordun was already working the story, and assigned her something else. But I noticed she started hanging around with Ordun the next couple of days. She’s sharp enough to figure out he’s not working any stories right now.”
“Why dincha call me ’bout dis last week?” The snitch heard anger in Stonalli’s voice. He suddenly remembered that working for the mob could be a dangerous business.
“Uh, ah…” he said, thinking quickly. “I never figured she’d follow it up on her own! I gave her several other assignments to make sure she was too busy!”
“Well, Mac, it looks like you might’a been wrong. Tell ya, if this broad got pictures of the Boss and Ross together, and she comes to you wit dem, you be happy to see ’em and tell her they’ll go on the front page next day, and to get busy writing the story. And convince her to keep it quiet! Then call me. I’ll take it from there.”
“Whatta ya gonna do, Stones?” Stonalli could tell he was worried; his perfect diction was starting to slip. “I don’t want any shootings in my newsroom!”
“You should’a thought about that last week, sucker! But don’t worry, we don’t want no publicity here. You just make sure you call me, and like I says, I’ll handle the rest. It’s been real good talkin’ wit ya, Mac! The Boss will be real happy to hear your news!”
Stones didn’t call off his other boys. There was a good chance that this DeLuna broad wasn’t the sneaky shutterbug. That job tonight had taken brains and guts, and there wasn’t a skirt he knew with that much on the ball. But if he didn’t cover all the angles, he’d be fish food by this time tomorrow.
Maybe he ought to make a personal call on DeLuna. If she was the one he was looking for, he didn’t want to give Mac a chance to screw things up. Hope there ain’t too many DeLunas in the phone book, he thought, since he didn’t want to have to call Mac back and ask for her address; he knew Mac would give him away somehow.
Stones wasn’t great at spelling, so he called one of the boys in to look up her name. One of the boys, a new guy at the time, had thought it was funny how he couldn’t read. Well, Stones had thought it was funny that the new guy couldn’t swim with his feet in a bucket of cement. Nobody ever laughed at him again. The Boss had yelled at him a little for wasting new talent, but it had been worth it.
Stones rounded up his three most trusted boys, and they piled into the car, then headed for Lily DeLuna’s house.